Christine Molloy & Joe Lawlor’s subtly menacing thriller shows what happens when you ask questions you don’t really want answered.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Nightstream festival)
Even if we get along relatively well with our parents, it’s not unusual to occasionally ponder what it would have been like if we had been born into a different family. What if we’d been switched with another baby in the hospital shortly after birth, or just given up by our “real” parents altogether? Would we end up where we still are in life, with our same dreams? Our same selves? If we were to discover that we were born to different parents than those who raised us, would finding out the truth about them make us feel whole, or are there simply things that we’re better off not knowing? A young medical student on some sort of journey of self-discovery learns that some questions just shouldn’t be answered in Rose Plays Julie, a low-key but unnerving thriller directed by Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor.
Rose (Ann Skelly) is on a mission to find her birth parents. Interestingly, her adoptive parents are never seen, or even mentioned. It appears that, save for a medical school friend, Rose is completely alone in the world, which makes reconnecting with her “real” family an even more inviting prospect. She learns that her birth mother, Ellen (Orla Brady), is a TV actress, but the excitement of that quickly fizzles out when it’s apparent that Ellen has no interest in meeting the child she gave up more than two decades ago. It’s only after passing herself off as a potential buyer of Ellen’s home does Rose finally get a chance to speak with her face to face, and it’s a chilly meeting at best.
As it turns out, Ellen has a pretty good reason for wanting to keep Rose at arm’s length, and explains to her the unfortunate circumstances behind her conception. Undeterred about finding out who she is as a person, Rose decides to track down her father, noted archaeologist Peter (Aidan Gillen). Donning a wig and calling herself Julie (already taking after mom, as it were), she convinces Peter to let her volunteer on a dig as part of “research” for an acting role. Perhaps sensing something a little familiar about her, Peter becomes attracted to “Julie,” and Rose, while not encouraging it, doesn’t exactly discourage it, either. When Peter starts telling her that she’s a “natural,” that there’s “something very special” about her, the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It’s the sensation one feels when you’re about to see a car crash happen. All you can do is hope that someone hits the brakes before it’s too late.
In the #metoo era, when we keep having the same arguments about what lines should be drawn, and how much pain and anger is socially acceptable to cling to, Rose Plays Julie offers a chilling look at the long-term effects of sexual assault. It may seem like Ellen’s initial refusal to have anything to do with Rose is unnecessarily cruel, but really it’s an act of self-preservation. If rapists aren’t forced to interact with children born of their assaults, why should the children’s mothers? Why should anyone be forced to live with a constant reminder of trauma, when they could be given a clean slate with no idea of the pain and ugliness that brought them into the world?
If Rose Plays Julie stumbles anywhere, it’s in not giving Rose any real dimension or background before she starts the search for her birth parents. With the long, luminous face of a Victorian romance novel character, Rose is a bit of a cipher, seemingly dedicated to her studies but also sort of detached about it too. She comes off as a little creepy and potentially stalker-ish when we first meet her, as if to suggest that how she was conceived really did impact her in some negative fashion, even if she didn’t know about it. Eventually, however, we see that it’s Peter, unsurprisingly, who’s gone through his life blissfully ignorant (or uncaring) about the damage he’s caused. The lines he feeds Rose about how special she is are said with the glibness of someone who knows exactly what to say to vulnerable young women. The invitations to his house to talk one-on-one about archaeology are nothing new. He’s been doing it since before Rose was born.
Up until the last twenty minutes or so, not much happens action-wise in Rose Plays Julie. The sense of creeping dread more than compensates, as we wonder how far Rose will let things go with Peter before she gets the answer she’s seeking. It’s a sobering, unsettling watch. We get no sense that various truths being revealed brings anyone any peace, or that the revenge that’s eventually sought makes things any more bearable. Maybe the truth is that we’re better off not knowing these things. We’re better off leaving some questions unanswered, some sides of ourselves unexplored, some doors never opened.
Rose Plays Julie is now screening at Nightstream