‘Rose Plays Julie’ review: a meek student fights back in this bleak, unsettling revenge drama

Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy's vital piece of cinema finds horror in unspoken fear that churns you up from the inside out

It’s been almost two years since Rose Plays Julie had its world premiere at the 2019 London Film Festival, but at long last, this vital – though resoundingly bleak – piece of moviemaking is finally on general release.

A film about identity, male violence, revenge, and renewal, it stars Irish actor Ann Skelly (HBO’s The Nevers, Vikings) in only her second-ever big-screen role. She plays the fragile, contemplative veterinary student Rose, who has tracked down the woman who gave her up for adoption years ago. Her birth mother, Ellen (an equally measured Orla Brady), is now a successful film actor, and her image haunts her daughter via a series of daydreams that are more like waking nightmares.

Rose sets about semi-stalking her until they finally meet, and – in a powerful scene set in a dense woodland as nightingales sing – she finds out the brutal reason why her mother gave her up all those years ago. Our protagonist – whose birth name was Julie – doesn’t take the news well, and her already brittle sense of self is chipped away at even further.

In much the same way as she quite easily tracks down her mother, Rose finds the man who is her father, a calmly sinister Aidan Gillen (The Wire, Game of Thrones). As she befriends him in scenes that are slow and meditative without ever being ponderous, she simultaneously starts to see male aggressors everywhere she looks. The previously meek Rose is now fired-up and furious and starts fighting back, taking a heavy fire extinguisher to the face of a man she sees attempting to sexually assault a drunk, sleeping woman.

Orla Brady Ann Skelly Rose Plays Julie
Orla Brady and Ann Skelly in ‘Rose Plays Julie’ CREDIT: Press

Any film that opens with the euthanisation of a pet dog – a gloomy theme that continues throughout the film’s 100 minutes – is bound to be pretty heavy going, but Rose Plays Julie is as tense and troubling as any blockbuster of a thriller. Overly staged shots that see everything in their right place, as well as icily perfect images of the lead characters, look like portraits and a muted, moody palette lends proceedings an eerie, unnaturalistic air.

At times it seems more like a horror film than anything, but rather than a slasher filled with gore, it’s the kind of unspoken fear that churns you up from the inside out. Its many moments of quiet and silence also lend any words spoken even more weight while lingering shots set alongside a twinkling Exorcist-style soundtrack with the occasional operatic trill leave you constantly on edge.

That’s not to say Rose Plays Julie doesn’t have its moments of extreme disquiet. A gruesome, vivid scene in which a cow is artfully dissected is not for the faint of heart, and the film’s disturbing denouement will stay with you long after the credits roll. But the point Rose Plays Julie makes is a powerful and horribly pertinent one.

Details

  • Director: Joe Lawlor, Christine Molloy
  • Starring: Ann Skelly, Orla Brady, Aidan Gillen
  • Release date: September 17 (in cinemas across the UK and Ireland)
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