Review by Róisín Ní Riain
Rose Plays Julie, the latest outing from writer-director duo Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor, aims to disconcert. It goes about this mission from every angle. We glide from plot point to plot point with almost torturous slowness. Individual faces, figures lost in sterile space, and, in one scene, animal viscera hold our gaze past the point of comfort. Stephen McKeon’s excellent score leads with delicately unsettling bells and flutes before swelling into nerve-plucking drama with strings and operatic singing.
These horror-tinted trappings are brought to bear on a story of hidden identities and the repercussions of violence. Veterinary student Rose (Ann Skelly), adopted as a baby, is preoccupied with the life she might have led as Julie, the name on her birth certificate. Her search for identity leads her to contact Ellen (Orla Brady), her birth mother and a successful actor, who is unwilling to reconnect. But Rose proves tenacious, and when the pair come face to face, Ellen reveals a terrible secret that plunges her life into turmoil. Rose dons the persona of ‘Julie’ (and a terrible wig) to wrangle her way into the life of Peter (played with appropriate sliminess by Aidan Gillen). From there, the plot takes on the contours of a revenge thriller.
Despite its potential for edge-of-your-seat drama, it’s this latter half of the film that is its weakest point. From the moment Rose/Julie approaches Peter, we can see where this is heading, lending what follows a terrible but compelling sense of foreboding. Yet despite the film’s otherwise glacial progress, at this crucial juncture it seems to lose its nerve. Rose’s entanglement with Peter proceeds almost perfunctorily, the anticipatory tension given too little time to simmer.
Peter himself also proves a problem. There are gestures towards his character — his hopelessly middle-aged golf posturing, his vanity regarding the cover photo of his new book, his loveless marriage — but never enough that we get a grip on his psychology. He’s too developed to convince as a one-dimensional villain, yet not developed enough to convince as a human monster. Frustratingly, the slightness of his characterisation hamstrings the catharsis the film’s conclusion is aiming for.
Rose Plays Julie’s flat notes are made all the more disappointing by the fact that what the film gets right, it gets really right. Skelly and Brady are mesmeric. As Rose, Skelly focuses the chilly eeriness of the film marvelously, conveying deep emotion with nothing more than a flicker of her eyes or the subtlest change in expression. McKeon’s score is absolutely essential in making the film work, elevating elements that would otherwise be heavy-handed – Ellen’s job being to act a part, Peter’s job being to dig up the past (Rose’s first glimpse of Peter as he quite literally washes his hands clean). At its best, the story manages to incorporate both contemporary relevance and a sense of timeless, almost archetypal, drama. There is plenty here to intrigue, if not quite enough to fully satisfy.