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Review: Rose Plays Julie – “Part family drama, part thriller, part revenge film.”

Ann Skelly as Rose in Rose Plays Julie

“I think about you all the time, the type of life you might be leading… Do you ever think about me?”

Rose (Ann Skelly) internally asks this question, facing the waves on a windy shore, to her mother.  Her biological mother.  Having been brought up in a seemingly loving adoptive home, Rose, an only child, now seeks answers about her birth mother.  Rose is a student enrolled in a Veterinary Medicine program in Dublin, where they are currently studying a unit about euthanasia.  A lecturer states that 90% of healthy euthanasias are due to bad behavioural issues, more than a little foreshadowing for what is to come.  But, now as she walks about her dorm room in contemplation, she looks at the phone number written down that will lead her on a path to discover her past.

After dialling the number for Ellen Wise (Orla Brady), she hangs up.  But the next time Rose calls she speaks, telling Ellen that she is her daughter, to whom she gave the name Julie on her birth certificate.  Ellen, on set for an acting role, is spooked and hangs up.  It was a closed adoption and she never really wanted contact.  However, Rose is spurred on by the rejection, arriving unannounced in London to try and connect with her mother.  Rose is desperate to discover herself.  She sees Julie as a separate entity, “The real me,” the person she might have been had she never been given over for adoption.

Ellen initially sees the arrival of Rose as a threat to her current life, and her other daughter Eva.  But Rose’s tenacity forces Ellen to reveal a secret she hasn’t spoken of in decades.  One that leads Rose to also discover her biological father, Peter (Aidan Gillen) under the guise of the name she was given at birth.  Posing as Julie in order to anonymously get close to him, Rose’s confrontation of her father leads her down a dark and unsettling path as she discovers things about her own past that may jeopardize her already fragile sense of self.

Rose Plays Julie is a slow burn of a film, quiet yet no less effectual. Watching Rose discover her personal history and her reaction to the reality of her origins is captivating and immersive, despite the film often subsisting on many lingering glances that become quickly unsettling.  This is largely in part to two excellent lead performances from Skelly and Brady, whose internal emotions often have to play on more subdued facial expressions.  When Rose confronts Ellen, the heartbreak that slowly passes across her face is gut-wrenching, just as Ellen’s fear is palpable.  These two actors are able to say so much without uttering a word, and it elevates this film to new levels.  Skelly, who is about to star in HBO’s new series The Nevers, will be interesting to watch as her career continues.

Writers and directors Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy have created a movie part family drama, part thriller, part revenge film.  In doing so in this subtle and contemplative way, they prove that none of those need to be grandiose or loud to be powerful.  Though there are a few plot elements that are never quite explored (for example, Rose is on medication that is never really discussed, is Ellen similarly afflicted?) overall this is a well-crafted thriller that while often cold and sometimes eerie in its visuals, still finds connection.

If you are adopted, the decision to try and find your birth parents is a very personal one.  For Rose, it was a necessity, a way for her to merge the identities of both herself as well as the person she thought she might have been.  However, opening that Pandora’s box changes her life in many unpredictable ways.  It’s clearly not going to be everyone’s story, but the themes of identity, belonging and trauma are universal.  Rose Plays Julie asks a question that so many of us wonder about ourselves, and that all of these characters need answered (one is literally asked on a post-it note), “Who are you?”

Rose Plays Julie is available on VOD and digital platforms March 19th.

Note for those sensitive to animal scenes that while there are sequences where animal euthanasia is inferred it is never directly depicted, but there is one clinical dissection of a cow, and a violent killing of a deer that may be disturbing to some.  

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