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Dublin International Film Festival 2020 Review - ROSE PLAYS JULIE

rose plays julie review
A young adopted woman learns the disturbing truth of her birth parents.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Joe Lawlor, Christine Molloy

Starring: Ann Skelly, Orla Brady, Aidan Gillen, Annabell Rickerby, Catherine Walker

rose plays julie poster


Who would have thought the rape-revenge sub-genre could make a comeback? Once the domain of scuzzy 1970s grindhouse thrillers, the rape-revenge thriller has been reappropriated for the arthouse set by a new generation of (mostly women) filmmakers. The villains have changed too. Gone are the faceless working class thugs who invade homes or lurk in alleys, replaced now by handsome, well-to-do men who wield their powerful positions rather than switchblades or handguns. Recent examples of this new wave of what not so long ago seemed an irredeemable genre include Coralie Fargeat's Revenge, The Soska Sisters' American Mary and Paul Verhoeven's Elle.

Arriving with a unique twist on the rape revenge narrative are Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy, the filmmaking duo who collaborate under the label 'Desperate Optimists'. In Rose Plays Julie it's not the immediate victim of the rape who initially seeks vengeance, nor is it some angry husband or boyfriend, but rather someone who becomes a secondary victim more than two decades after the incident.


rose plays julie review

That someone is veterinary student Rose (Ann Skelly), an adopted young Irish woman in her early twenties who has established the identity of her birth mother, Ellen (Orla Brady), a successful Irish actress now living in London. It's suggested that Rose's interest in finding her parents may have been inspired by her college studies, the current module of which involves the ethical euthanasia of healthy animals, no longer wanted by their owners. Like Julia Ducornau's Raw, it's another film in which a pale young woman's lust for blood is set against the ocre-splashed backdrop of a veterinary school.

[ READ MORE: Dublin International Film Festival 2020 Review - If You Are Happy ]

Rose takes a day trip to London, where she visits a film set and spies on Ellen, who notices the young woman watching her from afar. Seeing that Ellen's house is up for sale, Rose arranges a viewing as a means of infiltrating Ellen's home. There, after some awkward attempts on Rose's part to bluff the wary estate agent, Rose is left alone with Ellen, who reveals the truth behind Rose's origins. Ellen was raped by a man named Peter Doyle (Aidan Gillen), and after coming close to having an abortion, she instead put the child, which she named Julie, up for adoption.

Rose returns to Ireland and tracks down Peter, now a prominent archaeologist overseeing a dig on the outskirts of her city. Adopting the name of Julie, Rose invents a new persona for herself, donning a bob wig and claiming she is an actress researching a role as an archaeologist to spend time in Peter's company.


rose plays julie review

Just what Rose has in mind for her father is left teasingly and thrillingly ambiguous. Does she view him merely as a rapist or will the knowledge of their blood ties cloud her vengeful mind? Anyone who has seen Oldboy or the '70s grindhouse creepfest Toys Are Not for Children may begin to imagine an even darker path the film might tread.

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Skelly's pent-up performance and closed off expressions add to the delirious ambiguity. In some scenes we can see the panic growing behind her eyes even when her face draws tight as though being closed in an invisible vice. Despite the serious subject matter, Rose Plays Julie relieves the tension with humour, usually stemming from how out of her depth Rose is in the role of avenging angel, making up unconvincing answers to uncomfortable questions she isn't prepared for. "What's the play called?" Peter asks, to which, after pondering this inconvenient probe for a few seconds, Rose replies "The Archaeologist!" "Are you the archaeologist?" "Yes."

This use of humour to diffuse tension in the audience is reminiscent of Hitchcock, but it's something many filmmakers in his debt overlook. Adding to the Hitchcockian tone are the film's Vertigo-like exploration of dual identity, something Lawlor and Molloy have probed in their previous films Helen and Mister John. Unlike that of Kim Novak, Rose's transformation doesn't come at the command of a man's attempt to morph her into his ideal but from her own immature notions of the type of seductress that might lure Peter to his doom.


rose plays julie review

Like many of the films of Hitchcock, and even more so his arch-imitator Brian de Palma, Rose Plays Julie is a film largely comprised around the acts of looking and following. In her first glimpses of her parents, the film puts the audience in the POV of Rose, her mother appearing angelic if frightened, her father smug and sleazy. Stephen McKeon's moody score and heightened slo-mo camerawork from Tom Comerford add to the mythical atmosphere of Rose's observances.

If in its climax, where its female protagonists' withdrawn rage comes exploding to the fore, we're asked to suspend our disbelief somewhat, it ends on a chilling note of truth and reconciliation. In Rose Plays Julie, revenge is a dish served cold indeed.

Rose Plays Julie is in UK/ROI cinemas later in 2020.




2020 film reviews