In Rose Plays Julie, the adopted Rose (Ann Skelly) sets out to find her birth mother Ellen (Orla Brady), only to discover that her conception happened under horrifying circumstances. Rose’s determination to track down her father, Peter (Aidan Gillen), is the catalyst for the film’s sensitive, unflinching exploration of the impact of male violence and the devastating shortcomings of a justice system that continually fails victims. Here, writer-directors Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor – together known as Desperate Optimists – discuss how they approached the challenges of their bold fourth feature. 

  • Spoiler warning: This interview gives away major plot details

Your debut feature Helen (2008) was also about a girl trying to find out about her birth family. Did the ideas for Rose Plays Julie come from that film?

Christine Molloy: In Helen, we wanted to look at someone who had been in the care system and needs to know if she was loved, was wanted. She gets access to her files and learns the answer. And that’s a moment of hope for her. But Helen was a community arts project, so it wasn’t a completely polished script and, from a story point of view, there were unresolved issues that we were still engaged with. We were thinking about this idea of somebody who has this other version of themselves, and to push it into the world of adoption felt like something that chimed with our ongoing interests around identity. 

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It was also about having a different answer to the same question of ‘was I wanted?’ If Rose is pursuing the same set of questions as Helen was, but if the answers to those questions are very different, what does that look like? We’re also interested in looking at male violence against women. So putting those strands together was the starting point.

Joe Lawlor: There were two things that informed Helen. One is an obsession with just how stable we are as people. We have moved from Ireland to the UK, and I know that had we stayed in Dublin, we would now be different versions of ourselves.

The other aspect is that my mother was born in New York and was sent across the Atlantic at just 11 months old; I always thought about who she might have been had she stayed in New York. No surprise, her name is Helen.

The third aspect was watching her going in and out of psychiatric hospitals with various breakdowns. You see someone that you know, that you understand, become a very different kind of person. We keep going back to those central ideas: mental health, identity and gender politics. These things seem to amplify over time, rather than diminish.

In terms of gender politics, the film deals with an issue that is still fairly taboo on screen, which is a biological mother not wanting anything to do with her child. Was that always a crucial part of the story?

Molloy: Yes. Actually, Orla [Brady] really dug into that. In the screenplay, there was maybe a little more emotion from the character towards Rose at certain points. Orla pulled back on a few of those things that were in the script, which worked really well. The character has good reason. She had drawn a line under the relationship, because going back to her daughter is also going back to a trauma that she buried.

Lawlor: She is protecting herself; she believes it’s best not to have this engagement [with Rose] because, inevitably, this will lead to a revelation which Rose will also be dragged down by. At some point, she has decided to swallow this pain, so that her daughter doesn’t have to. Sharing pain can alleviate the weight of it on your shoulders, but maybe Ellen doesn’t realise that until Rose forces her hand.

Rose Plays Julie (2019)

Unlike in many other on-screen narratives that explore the impact of rape, we never see the perpetrator, Peter, attempt to deny what he’s done. Was that important?

Molloy: Absolutely. At various stages of development, people wanted us to go into that space where Peter was saying it was consensual; that he hadn’t raped her. But it seems we’re always in that space when it comes to talking about rape. We’re trying to deny it after half an hour, giving it another name. For example, women who are killed during sex are often said to have been enjoying rough sex that went wrong. All this kind of stuff goes on day in, day out.

We are so completely unable to deal with rape through the justice system that we did not want one moment where any doubt was brought into proceedings. This happened. He knows that, because he raped her. She knows, because she was raped. And now the daughter knows that she was conceived through rape. It was also very important to us in the telling of the story that the power remained with these three characters. This is not going to be resolved through some third party, which takes it out of their control. They will resolve this themselves.

Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor at the Rose Plays Julie premiere at the BFI London Film Festival

That resolution comes in a climactic confrontation between Ellen and Peter. How did you approach such a pivotal scene?

Lawlor: We thought it would be interesting in a car, out in a field, which is a very controlled environment – it was, essentially, just two people having a dialogue. We had the brainwave of keeping them separate throughout the shoot, until it was time to film that scene. They were both excited about the prospect, of not seeing each other and going in and trying to get it first take. Unfortunately, Orla bumped into Aidan the night before in the local Tesco. So, best laid plans and all that!

But they put in terrific performances. Essentially it’s two actors with a minimal amount of instruction who understand the scene and what’s at stake.

It’s a very intense, shocking and cathartic sequence. How have audiences reacted?

Lawlor: We did have a comment where someone was very upset that a man had accepted this behaviour towards him. “Since when would a man sit there and let a woman kill him?” Of course, if the opposite were to happen and the man killed the woman, nobody would bat an eyelid.

Molloy: It’s not cold-blooded revenge. Ellen really goes in to protect her daughter; she knows that Rose will not stop looking for revenge. So she steps in to take that burden, in a protective way. We did a lot of research around Peter Doyle, who is a narcissist. For narcissists, there can be a real moment of vulnerability when the game is up, when everything they have carefully put together is in danger of being destroyed.

So I feel his death is essentially an assisted suicide, because he had to want it. If he didn’t want it, she wouldn’t be able to do it, because he’s stronger than her. Which brings us right back to this central idea that rape is an abuse of power, like power in society. So much of it is in the hands of men. That subtlety can get lost on audiences; it’s something people struggle with.

Rose Plays Julie (2019)

Do you think audiences might be more accepting if Peter had been actively attacking Ellen, and it was self-defence in the moment?

Lawlor: Perhaps, because that would be very emotional. It’s a complicated scene; she’s not actually there for her, she’s there for someone else. It’s not actually murder, it’s consensual. It’s a kind of compassionate killing. These elements make it more complicated, but it’s also provocative; we’re not naive about that. That’s a provocative message, that this is one way you could deal with this problem if the judicial system lets you down, which it does.

But you wouldn’t ever say that in the real world. In the world of the film, because of the operatic or Greek tragedy nature of it, these issues of patricide, fratricide, completely make sense. But if it was one of those moments where someone is attacking somebody, and suddenly they turn around with a gun or a knife, that’s an understandable trope in cinema. And people go “Good, they got the baddie!”

We enjoy that as much as everyone else. But it’s very sentimental, it’s very simplistic and it’s not terribly psychological. It’s a different order of filmmaking, and it’s not what we’re interested in.

Further reading

The quiet Irishman: Mister John

Directors Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor discuss Mister John, their enigmatic tale of drifting identity in the tropical heat of Singapore.

By Samuel Wigley

The quiet Irishman: Mister John