Rose Plays Julie is a mythic thriller about women and violence

Desperate Optimists’ potent new film poses ethical dilemmas and undercuts Eurowestern narrative traditions with every twist of the plot and shift in tone.

16 September 2021

By So Mayer

Ann Skelly as Rose in Rose Plays Julie
Sight and Sound

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Rose Plays Julie is in UK cinemas from 17 September.

Rose Plays Julie is, on the surface, an expertly drawn thriller, one limned through a slippery relationship between two women working out whether they can trust each other; powerful instances of drone music; shots of eerily empty spaces of modernity like concrete corridors, escalators and golf courses; and a definitionally sleazy performance by Aidan Gillen – in his third feature film with filmmakers Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor, aka Desperate Optimists – as the embodiment of entitlement. There’s a gunshot, a vulnerable teenage girl, doublings, risky decisions, a disguise based on a wig and a false name and knowledge of the administration of a poison. Its deployment of generic codes is powerful, with its subtle distribution of knowledge and restrained use of jump scares, all framed by the compelling ethical question of whether Rose, adopted as a baby, has a right to knowledge of her biological parentage.

Initially, the film suggests the stalker subgenre, as Rose researches her biological mother Ellen online, watching and rewatching a clip of her in a horror film, where she plays a police officer confronted with a young female car-crash victim who turns into a werewolf. Rose follows up her second attempt at a phone conversation by finding Ellen’s house in London, following her to work on set, making an appointment to view the house, which is up for sale, and getting into an uncomfortable conversation with Ellen’s younger daughter Eva, whose bedroom she goes through. Ann Skelly imbues Rose with an impassive, patient expression that makes the directness of her inquiries, when they come, all the more disarming and convincing.

It is here, with Rose’s frankness to Ellen, that the film turns narrative tail to confront our expectations about adoption stories. Ellen defies the misogynist stereotypes of both the mendacious actress and the callous mother who gives up her child for adoption, meeting Rose’s honesty with her own, at great personal cost. Orla Brady plays beautifully with the ways that both professional performers and mothers are expected to show self-control, and how these are stripped away in her confession to Rose. The act bonds them deeply and reveals the film as, at heart, the most unusual of narratives: a mother-daughter love story; a narrative of, literally, affiliation, in which a courageous daughter avenges a protective mother. By wrapping this love-as-action story within a thriller, it joins a select feminist anti-canon, comprising Carol Morley’s Out of Blue (2018) and Jane Campion’s In the Cut (2003). In all three films, the ethics of violence – particularly violent revenge by women against men – becomes the central drama.

Rose Plays Julie (2019)

In doing so, Rose Plays Julie, like the first season of Campion’s Top of the Lake (2013), also takes on and inverts the tropes that underlie Eurowestern storytelling, the family ‘romance’ of the Greek tragedies and Biblical narratives. Like Greek tragedy, the film hinges on scenes of recognition and reversal, but the tragic inversion resonates beyond the level of plot: Rose is a veterinary student currently engaged in a unit on euthanasia, and the film looks frankly at what Carol J. Adams called “the sexual politics of meat”, the association of violence against animals and against women. A dying, then dead, deer appears towards the end of the film’s final act, raising questions about empathy, family and gender. As in Morley’s and Campion’s work, the realism of the thriller genre is exploded, its underlying fantasy of gendered violence made evident and then ritually (as well as literally) reversed.

Such tonal multiplicities are a defining feature of Desperate Optimists’ work, with their early short films, collected as ‘Civic Life’, each differently generating the unusual and welcome effect of hallowing civic architecture and its communities with not just dignity but a rich inner life. In their first feature Helen (2009), a young woman who has been raised in the care system finds a way to survive leaving it, through playing a missing classmate in a police reconstruction; the film allusively places her as Helen of Troy, who could create a magical double.

Again like Top of the Lake, Rose Plays Julie offers a resistant re-interpretation of the poetic trope of the colonised nation as a raped woman, one version of what in Irish tradition was called the aisling. Rose’s biological father Peter is a television archaeologist and the author of a popular book on Irish prehistory. Meanwhile Ellen is playing an English-accented aristocrat in a film shot in Dublin, and when Rose first meets her, is on the set of a historical drama suggestive of Call the Midwife. Her face framed by an old-fashioned nurse’s veil, Ellen looks hauntingly reminiscent of Elle, the female protagonist of Hiroshima mon amour (1959), who is in Japan to play a nurse. It’s one of a number of subtle details that build to a powerful choral reminder that sexual violence is not just a private issue between individuals, but underlies the nation-state. Playing the character of Julie, Rose explores acting as a way to get closer to her birth mother, and teaches Ellen a new role, one that extends beyond lover, nurse or officer of the law: together they enact not vengeance but reparation. No more potent new myth for our times could exist.