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Rose (Ann Skelly) is a college student, longing for someone – a person she’s never known but who she shares an unbreakable bond with. An adoptee, Rose’s adult life is at all times touched by the absence of her birth mother and the life she imagines leading under her birth name, “Julie”.
The film opens on Rose with her back to the camera. She’s facing out to a turbulent sea, and a bokeh effect makes the grey clouds in the sky look like they’re about to swallow up the scenery. Rose addresses her mother in voice-over: “I think about you all the time.”
In the scenes that follow we see Rose’s daily life as a veterinary student. She attends lectures, assists with a procedure and watches a film featuring her birth mother.
Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor’s direction tends to keep the camera at a distance. We are sitting in on the action, sometimes seeing more than we should but, more often than not, less. The deliberate unevenness in the rhythm of cutting from one scene to the next contributes to a gnawing, growing feeling of unease in these early scenes.
While Molloy and Lawlor employed an eerie arm’s-length style in earlier features like Mister John, Rose Plays Julie is the most potent distillation of their directorial tendencies. The moment-to-moment action of the film makes it hard to get a read on Rose’s interiority. What we’re told and what we see are often two different things.
Misdirection blurs the lines between Rose’s fantasy life as Julie and the real world, scenes replay and change perspective. Characters switch roles, the lines between fact and fiction become blurrier and blurrier.
Later in the film when we revisit the seaside imagery of the opening scene it’s through a close-up on a photograph. The moment when Rose learned of her could-be second life, frozen in time forever. In this photo the clouds don’t look as foreboding as in the opening sequence.
In seeking out her birth mother, Ellen (Orla Brady), an actor living in London, Rose’s life splits into two. The world that she’s known now co-exists alongside a world she’s only ever imagined.
Trauma is bubbling beneath the surface of this new life as “Julie”. Ellen initially wants nothing to do with Rose, as the memories of her conception and birth are too painful, but Ellen eventually comes to trust her daughter and opens up to her about the wounds of the past.
Rose embraces the chance to become Julie. In this guise, she wears a short-haired wig and carries herself with an unflappable confidence that she previously lacked. We see flashes of Julie in Rose as she works herself up to finding her father.
In one sequence Rose confronts a man forcing himself upon one of her dorm-mates. She hits him with a nearby fire extinguisher, but there’s still some hesitation there. When a later scenario mirrors this confrontation Julie, doesn’t hesitate, she fights.
Peter (Aidan Gillen) is a respected archeologist. When Rose first sees him it’s across a crowded room at a book signing, and the space between them is compressed through rapid editing. There is, again, unease in the intercutting between the two characters.
The film’s style pushes them together before the narrative does. There is then, an inevitability to the path of destruction that Rose as Julie finds herself on.
Posing as an actress researching a play called The Archeologist, Rose as Julie begins to help out on one of Peter’s dig sites. Peter takes a special interest in Rose and begins to groom her. It’s not the first time for Peter. Ellen had experienced something similar 19 years earlier.
At one point Peter exclaims to his wife, “How many times do I have to tell you? I’m not having an affair.” For Peter this is a pattern. He is a man who is used to taking and getting what he wants from the world. To Peter, Julie’s monosyllabic responses and wide-eyed expression read as simple. In another light it’s an expression of horror.
Rose Plays Julie’s last act focuses on two instances of violence. In one, Peter beats an injured deer to death with a shovel. This comes after he learns of Julie’s true identity following an unsuccessful attempt to assault her. “When someone says stop, you stop. And one more thing. You are my father!”
Gillen’s performance as Peter leans into an animalistic nature. He acts on base urges and sees sex and violence as one and the same. Julie despite her doe-eyed expression and seeming naivety wounded him. The imagery here is particularly brutal and serves as another of the film’s retakes of a previous sequence, as Peter screams over the deer’s corpse we recall him attempting to strangle Julie.
The dynamic between Gillen and Skelly is a highlight. Both characters are playing games, but Rose’s revenge plot comes into focus much later in the film.
There is a period where her interactions with Peter look like father-daughter bonding. The distant, observational camerawork plays into this mixed-up tone while constantly ramping up the tension as the narrative draws to a close and ultimately brings the catharsis of vengeance.
The success of a thriller is usually measured in beats per minute. Does the onscreen action get the blood pumping? Rose Plays Julie takes a different approach to its thrills. The situations Rose finds herself in are squirmy and tense resulting in an almost constant feeling of dread. I had a sinking feeling for most of the film. Lawlor and Molloy seem to know that the greatest thrill of all is escaping by the skin of your teeth. The ultimate thrill is the relief that you may live to get into another life or death situation.
It’s often the case that films that focus on revenge show the limits of what revenge can accomplish. In Rose Plays Julie, vengeance brings the imagined and the real together. Julie frees Rose to act and in turn she gives Ellen an opportunity to take control of her destiny. Revenge ends a cycle of violence, instead of starting a new one.
When we see the scene from the photograph for the final time, we are allowed a view of Rose’s face in this moment that once represented a shattering of her world. Now we see a smile, a bridge between Rose’s past and present self. In that smile, there’s a promise that the systems, powers and people that seek to oppress others are not a constant.