For the past decade writing/directing duo Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor have been steadily working away on stripped down, psychological thrillers that play on themes of identity. Their latest, Rose Plays Julie, proves to be no exception. A tightly played story of a young Dublin woman seeking out her birth mother, unwittingly triggering a methodical journey of revenge.
Relative newcomer Ann Skelly (also seen in HBO’s The Nevers) brings a frightening malevolence to Rose from the very start. Fuelling her search for her birth mother with fierce tension. Her background in veterinary training compounds this with a grim disaffection, detailing her studies into animal euthanasia with discomforting monotony. Crucially though, the film never casts Rose as an utter sociopath; she invests her search with a real yearning that bleeds through into her relationships with those around her. She is unsettled by the darkness that drives her but not rendered inhumane.
Truth be told, as effective as Rose’s background is, it’s somewhat incongruent with the rest of the film. Rose’s journey is one of personal identity; searching for her biological mother as a means of understanding ‘Julie’, her birth name and the person she may have become. She discovers her mother, Ellen, now living in London as a semi-successful television actress (Orla Brady). A woman adopting the identities of larger-than-life characters to hide her internal vulnerability. When Rose discovers the truth; that she was the product of rape, she poses as Julie to find the man, having now reinvented himself as a renowned archaeologist (Aiden Gillen).
Everything proceeds with a sense of foreboding dread that takes no interest in the granular details. Rose’s stalking of Ellen and Peter occurs with little sense of how she can deftly find and get close to them. Casting her more as a demonic force, like the ones seen in Ellen’s schlockier work. When her outbursts into violence finally come it is as momentary flares; brutal and painful, but instantly broken. Pulling us back to Rose in horror at her own actions. The delightfully snake-like Gillen providing such a truly despicable hate figure that you can’t help but side with Rose.
If there’s a downside to be had it is that this theme of identity never pays off in any satisfying way. There’s simply no suggestion that ‘Julie’ is a fully fleshed out entity separate from Rose; no does Rose seem to struggle with her sense of self meaningfully. Her malevolence robs us of the opportunity to truly know her to the extent that we can see her losing herself. Nor does her relationship with biological mother Ellen develop into the kind of intimate bond the film requires. Rose’s journey forcing Ellen to act in ways we simply cannot believe in after such a short time together.
For fans of tense, psychological thrillers, Rose Plays Julie has a lot to offer. An atmospheric character study and gripping personal drama grounded by a powerful, yet human performance in its lead. In its determination to trim any fat it loses something in the way of personality, existing as more a mood piece than a narrative with momentum. However, the mood is frightening, powerful and relentless.