Cathy Butler doubles up on a story of a young woman searching for her biological mother.
An uneasy and suspenseful collision of social drama, revenge thriller, and classical tragedy, Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy’s Rose Plays Julie defies a quick or easy analysis.
Ann Skelly is the eponymous Rose/Julie, a young veterinary student who was adopted as a baby. Rose decides to initiate contact with her birth mother, Ellen (Orla Brady), a successful actor based in London. Despite Ellen’s initial rebuff of Rose, the two begin to form a relationship. Ellen reveals to Rose the circumstances of her conception and eventual adoption. This information leads Rose to adopt the moniker of Julie, her birth name, and embark on an acting role of her own – a deceptive foray into the life of Peter (Aidan Gillen), an archaeologist and Rose’s biological father.
The doubling suggested by the title is reiterated throughout the film. Julie is Rose’s other self, or the self she never was. The Rose/Julie doppelganger is joined by others; Ellen, Rose’s birth mother versus Rose’s deceased (and absent and nameless) adoptive mother; also, Ellen versus the roles that she plays in her acting career.
Acting and identity provide a core metaphorical strand to the film. Rose, Ellen, and Peter are all pretending to be someone they’re not, to varying degrees. Visual metaphor is also found in the spaces that the characters occupy and move through. Rose’s day-to-day life sees her in modern, open lecture halls and spacious laboratories. However, many scenes of high emotional intensity take place in the secure and enclosed interiors of cars. The denouement also takes place here, a scene of catharsis that brings the film’s tragic elements to the fore.
Skelly and Brady excel with roles that demand internal turmoil and external composure. Almost as much is learned from the actors’ faces as from their dialogue. Given that there are more than a few instances of awkward dialogue, it benefits the film that so much is communicated wordlessly. A combination of lingering static visuals and slow camera movements act in contrast to Rose and Ellen’s inner conflict. The pace is slow, but allows room for the cast to do the emotional heavy lifting. The sound design is also impactful, with hard cuts from distorted orchestral score to everyday atmospheric sounds snapping both the viewer and the characters back to the here and now.
While the first half of the film invokes a social realist drama, the second half instead moves towards a revenge or power fantasy. Aidan Gillen is in some ways under-utilised as Peter, a rather thinly drawn villain. His characterisation makes sense if we view him solely as a vessel for the retribution sought by Rose and eventually Ellen herself. Peter is less of a character, more of a character type, an object of conflict in Rose and Ellen’s mother-daughter arc.
Thinking beyond the boundaries of the film destroys the power fantasy the plot creates. Real world consequences are inevitable in response to the choices that Rose and Ellen make. Rose seeks out and wields power, which she then passes on to Ellen. The film toys with both narrative and gender power dynamics by ultimately rendering Peter, the antagonist and only male character of significance in the film, wholly powerless. But the tenuousness of the power that Rose and Ellen achieve lingers after the close of the film.
Rose Plays Julie screened on 29th February as part of the 2020 Dublin International Film Festival.