In amongst its often rather Old Testament tale of family, neglect, and revenge, Rose Plays Julie wrestles with some fundamentally modern questions. Who owns a story, and who gets to tell it? Do our feelings allow us to become the central characters of a tale, or are we destined to merely be supporting players? Where’s the line between inheriting someone’s trauma and just outright stealing it for yourself? It makes for an intellectually fascinating but not always emotionally satisfying entry from Irish filmmaking duo Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor, a movie that tinkers with your brain without quite adding up to the sum of its parts.
Rose (Ann Skelly) is a student vet in Dublin who suffers from two hauntings. One is the impact of her current module, which focuses on putting sick animals down, and the other is a bit more existential, as she searches for a way to contact her birth mother, who gave Rose up for adoption as soon as she was born. Through a rather contrived-feeling series of events, Rose tracks her mother down – she is Ellen (Orla Brady), a very successful TV actress living and working in London – and finds some dark answers about why she was put up for adoption and the horrible nature of her rapist biological father, semi-famous archaeologist Peter (Aidan Gillen).
Rose’s story is, sadly, the weakest strand of Rose Plays Julie, as she takes on the identity of Julie (the name Ellen originally gave her), and gets close to Peter by volunteering on his latest dig. Rose’s motivations always feel a bit foggy, and a lot of her choices are inexplicable, bordering on the silly. Through this weakness, though, Molloy and Lawlor can play their trump card, suddenly shifting focus to Ellen, whose story this really is, who finds she still needs to come to terms with the way Peter turned her life on its head.
There’s a climactic confrontation between Ellen and Peter that plays in a way I’m not sure I’ve really ever seen on screen before, a powerhouse ending to an otherwise stumbling story that does make all the wobbliness leading up to it worthwhile. Brady and Gillen are both great – there are some really brilliantly observed moments of Peter being a smug prick even when he’s totally alone, earning some of Rose Plays Julie’s darkest laughs – and though Skelly sometimes seems a bit overmatched by the material, she does get some standout scenes.
Molloy and Lawlor can clearly stretch a (presumably rather limited) budget to within an inch of its life. They conjure some gorgeous shots, using muted colours, shallow focus, and a piercing score to create some hypnotic visuals and soundscapes. There’s no gritty, kitchen-sink realism to Rose Plays Julie’s style, which is refreshing for a film like this, and justifies the choice to wait two full years from its 2019 festival circuit premiere to be able to present it on the big screen, instead of just pushing it out on a streaming service. As much as it can be frustrating – with a lot of the script working harder to further the film’s themes than it is to sound like real people talking – there’s a lot to admire in Rose Plays Julie, a smart and deceptively ambitious take on overcoming the evil that men do.