Rose Plays Julie: Highbrow quasi-thriller frustrates and rewards

A more fibrous, chewier piece of work than Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor’s previous

Ann Skelly

Film Title: Rose Plays Julie

Director: Christine Molloy, Joe Lawlor

Starring: Ann Skelly, Orla Brady, Aiden Gillen, Annabell Rickerby, Catherine Walker, Sadie Soverall

Genre: Thriller

Running Time: 101 min

Fri, Sep 17, 2021, 05:00


Over the past few decades, Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor, beginning in theatrical spaces and moving on to cinema, have developed a unique school of elliptical, allusive storytelling that hides as much as it reveals. Desperate Optimists – as they were named on first emergence – are at it again with this frozen quasi-thriller concerning a young woman seeking to flesh out an alternative identity that was tidied away at her birth.

Themes from the film-makers’ 2008 feature Helen resurface. Some sinister flavours from Mister John, their second film, prickle at the back of the tongue. The clean wide-screen shots – still occasionally a little too reminiscent of gallery-based art – continue to play out in disciplined arrangements. But Rose Plays Julie also advances into some new territory. This is a more fibrous, chewier piece of work. 

It is also, at times, a little too fond of allusions, allegory and subtext. Early on, we establish that the protagonist, played with supernatural introspection by Ann Skelly, is a student at a Dublin veterinary college. The words “Euthanasia and the Healthy Animal”, which appear as part of the course, could act as a secondary title for the current project and for any number of high-end art films. (How has Peter Greenaway not happened upon it before now?) Writing one of the three main characters as an actor presses home the theme of impersonation already explicit in the title. Having another work as an archaeologist reminds us that the story has much to do with uncovering old secrets. Just a little too many fussy parentheses nestle around the core narrative.

There is, nonetheless, a strong story there. Rose (Skelly) is eager to track down the mother who gave her up for adoption after placing the name “Julie” on the baby’s birth certificate. Might it be possible to reconnect with the person “Julie” would have become? That does sort-of happen, but not in a way that offers any healing. #It transpires that Rose’s mum is Ellen (Orla Brady), a successful actor. The student travels to London and, posing as a potential buyer for Ellen’s house, makes disingenuous connections that will later harden into something more secure. Rose’s biological father, Peter (Aidan Gillen in convincingly oily form) proves to be, putting it mildly, something of a disappointment. The three principals knock insistently against one another like canoes left adrift in a slow but unstoppable stream.

The standout turn comes from Brady. Whereas everyone else is purposefully stiff and mannered, she comes closest to delivering something like a naturalistic performance.

The ironies abound. Seen acting in a police thriller and in an 18th-century drama, Ellen is, of course, the one among the three most conspicuously wedded to pretence. It is how she spends her days. Yet, when the costumes come off, she is closest to an honest version of herself. Elsewhere, Rose pulls on a wig and sets out to play a version of Julie while Peter juggles his own disguises. We drift towards an ending that maybe answers a few too many of the script’s unspoken questions.

As tends to be the case with the Optimists, the tech work is so finely honed you want to either applaud or scream. Interior spaces feel like well-appointed waiting rooms. Tom Comerford’s cinematography – also seen to advantage in the current Herself – allows ambiguous shades to creep into even the sharpest compositions. Stephen McKeon’s eerie, vocal-heavy score presses home the unease beneath even the most apparently benign images.

Rose Plays Julie does, perhaps, become a little too caught up in its own high-brow meditations. Still, one wouldn’t wish it to pretend to be something that it is not. That is Rose’s job. And Ellen’s. And Peter’s.

Occasionally frustrating, but worth getting frustrated about.

Opens on September 17th