Rose Plays Julie (2021)
Written & Directed by Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy
In recent years, I’ve stumbled across mentions of the American discomfort with long silences. I don’t think I’ve ever been affected by this psychological fear, but who knows. I have noticed people who can’t bear a space where nothing is being said or done. However, from what I have seen of cinema from other regions, they are much more comfortable with contemplative silence. They are not averse to letting an audience sit for a moment, taking in all the little sensory details of the space and what has happened. This is core to the way Rose Plays Julie’s story. It deals with such a sensitive & uncomfortable topic that the filmmakers know we need to sit and think.
Rose (Anne Skelly) is a veterinary student in Dublin who has discovered something about herself. She is adopted and has learned that the name on her birth certificate was “Julie.” Rose also finds that her birth mother is Ellen (Orla Brady), a London-based actress. Ellen and Rose eventually meet amidst awkward circumstances, and the young woman learns the circumstances of her conception and birth. Ellen was raped and almost had an abortion, but decided at the last minute to give birth but give the child up for adoption. This cuts a gash across Rose’s psyche; she sees herself as a mistake resulting from something horrible. This leads her to track down the biological father, Peter (Aidan Gillen). He’s an archaeologist overseeing a dig in the countryside. Rose presents herself as Julie, an actress playing the role of an archaeologist. She wants to research the job with Peter’s help but has a dark agenda behind this.
Rose Plays Julie ends up being a film about people wearing masks or disguises to hide pain or ill intent from others. Rose is in the middle trying to figure out what it means to be Rose and if the hypothetical life Julie might have had would have been a better one. In some ways, she’s trying to repair the wounded Julie side of herself, correcting a wrong that happened decades earlier so that whatever is left of that other person can heal. Rose dons a pixie-cut wig before presenting herself as Julie to Peter, who later compliments her hairstyle. However, she hides her true purpose for meeting him and who she is in relation to him. Eventually, we learn Peter’s nice guy facade is just as false as when Ellen met him all those years past. In addition, his current wife seems aware of his fakeness, immediately suspecting infidelity when things don’t quite feel right.
There were two pieces of media that I was reminded of almost immediately when the movie started. The first is Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, the 2006 Tom Twyker drama. The score for this film bears a strong resemblance with that one, a very sparing in most moments and then overwhelming & haunting sound. There’s a soprano quietly expressing the inner turmoil Rose is going through, lending gravitas to the story being told here. At its core, this is a very primal tale, the search for identity and how choices made when a person is young come to haunt them later in life. You could see this as a story Shakespeare might have told, though likely without the sensitivity these filmmakers bring to the table. Stephen McKeon’s score is absolutely perfect in creating an air of mystery and tension that pulls the audience into the dreamlike qualities of the movie.
The second piece of media I was reminded of was the British television series Utopia based on the stunning cinematography. Cinematographer Tom Comerford can evoke a sense of the eerie in space that might typically pass as mundane. The places people live in feel cold and empty. There’s barely anyone around on Rose’s campus. She spends many nights working late all by herself. We are not seeing the world as it is, rather the world as seen by Rose at this moment where she does not feel connected to her adoptive family or her birth parents. What was once understood now feels alien and distant. Comerford employs some beautiful blurriness and sharp focus at just the right moments. We often have Rose crystal clear, but the landscape around her feels like smudges of paint on the canvas.
Rose Plays Julie is the best film I’ve seen to come out of the shift in culture due to victims of sexual assault coming forward. There’s an urge to lean into shallow girl power in America rather than tackle the issue’s complexity. Show women being empowered but don’t hide vulnerability in the shadows. The notion that victims should be shown getting bloody revenge is essentially an offshoot of toxic masculinity. There is a certain carnal satisfaction to revenge movies, but I think we must also face the sobering reality everyone has to come back to. The performances in the film are of such a high caliber, with Orla Brady being the personal standout for me. Approach this picture with caution if you feel like the subject matter is too much for you, but I highly recommend Rose Plays Julie as a brilliant examination of the wounds that don’t always heal.