Few actors can play a self-satisfied bastard as well as Aidan Gillen. As the unscrupulous Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish in the HBO series Game of Thrones, he had television viewers cringe at his every insincere utterance. In Rose Plays Julie, his third collaboration with the writer-director team Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor, he is cast as an unpleasant, full-of-himself archaeologist, Peter. I’d like to imagine that he took Molloy and Lawlor aside and said, ‘come on, you know me better than that.’ But then I equally imagine he said, ‘right, let’s get on with it.’
Peter doesn’t appear until halfway through. The first half of the movie concerns Rose (Ann Skelly) a young woman studying to be a vet, which, as far as we can tell, mostly involves learning how to put animals to sleep. We take this for granted: that killing pets or farm animals is the best response to their suffering. Instead of re-thinking this, Molloy and Lawlor twist the logic. Why isn’t putting humans out of their misery acceptable?
Rose has just discovered she was adopted. Her birth mother, Ellen (Orla Brady) is an actress who gave her away at birth. Rose contrives to meet her and then, stalker-like, visits Ellen’s home, pretending to be a buyer. She meets her half-sister, Eva (Sadie Soverall) and surveys the life she could have had. Conflicting emotions simmer beneath the surface. We don’t know what Rose wants. At birth, she was registered as Julie. Perhaps she wants to change her identity. To this end, she buys a wig.
Then there is the vexed question of her father. Who is he? Shaking, Ellen cannot bear to say his name. She writes it down and the film takes a right turn.
Molloy and Lawlor conjure an atmosphere of menace and foreboding. In student digs, Rose notices a young man attempt to take advantage of a young woman whilst she is drunk and deals him a nose-breaking blow. The scene, devoid of sound, is dream-like. We’re not entirely sure it happened. Would the door have really been left half ajar for Rose to see a sexual assault in progress? At the archaeological dig, Rose pretends to be Julie, an actress researching a role. She isn’t entirely convincing. Peter, who runs the dig, doesn’t care.
The central image of the film is a photograph of Rose with her back to the camera, staring at a lighthouse on a wind-swept coastal path. Why would anyone take such a picture? In a very literal sense, Rose has turned her back on her adoptive parents, who don’t figure in the story at all. The plot developments are bold and the finale unpredictable. Molloy and Lawlor push credibility to the limit but there’s a logic to the ending.
All three performers are excellent. Brady and Skelly exude fragility as mother and daughter. Catherine Walker makes a brief but powerful impression as Peter’s wife, who takes one look at her husband’s face and demands answers, even if they are unsayable.
Rose Plays Julie has been likened to Greek drama with the impending threat of a taboo being broken. Molloy and Lawlor don’t go for kitchen sink realism. Taboos in Irish filmmaking do not allow for it; Irish films are prudish when it comes to sex. Characters appear to be driven by motives that they don’t understand; they are strangers to themselves. It is a credit to the filmmakers that they make this idea work in a thrilling, edge-of-the-seat way.
Rose Plays Julie opens in selected UK cinemas on Friday 17 September 2021