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Review: ‘Rose Plays Julie’ is a deep journey into an adoptee’s inception

Ann Skelly in the movie "Film Movement."
(Film Movement)

There is a fine line to be drawn between overbearing self-seriousness and exposed emotional affect. Irish filmmaking duo Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor’s fourth feature film, “Rose Plays Julie,” is a rare example of the latter in that it is able to shape its story with an urgent intensity that feels neither overbearing nor contrived.

The London Film Festival favorite follows a veterinary student named Rose (Ann Skelly) who, having been adopted at birth, attempts to track down her biological parents. As the film begins, she is vague and almost dissociative in her intent. She first finds her birth mother, Ellen (Orla Brady), silently following her to work as well as her home. In the film’s first act of destabilization, we are unsure whether we are to identify with her or not; Rose is often affectless in her actions and speech, however brief flashes of her internal life come
to the fore as we continue to observe her through the film.

We learn as Rose does and come to piece together the traumatic history of her conception. We witness her question her previously unfettered sense of understanding of the world she was brought into. The wake of this knowledge sets forth imbalances and counteractions within both her sense of self and actions — she can no longer live as she has been living, she can no longer be as she has been. We see this most vigorously as the film introduces us to the figure of her biological father, Peter (Aidan Gillen), a celebrity archaeologist whose charm and charisma are tautly bound atop a violent internal life.

“Rose Plays Julie’s” second act is anchored by its focus on Peter and questions as to the inevitable monstrosity of men like him. It is generous in its scope but aware in its envisioning. We are given to ask what modicum of self-awareness might a man like Peter have in regards to not only his actions but his retribution. The simple answers of martyrdom and atonement are here eschewed for more complex questions of when might the human become inhuman? What is the terminal point of a malignancy that is present within the very core of a person?

It’s a film that asks you to sit with it in its contemplations and any inability on your part to do so is more human nature — what we are here given over to study in such detail — than it is a failure on the part of the film itself: It knows that it is OK to look away. It is difficult and unflinching in the way it crafts its suspense, whether psychological or literal in its depiction; it models scenarios that can be hard to watch, never mind fathom, with a distance that is somewhat cold and always intentional. It’s a film that does not offer its narrative as a guiding prompt for the everyday but rather uses its exercise in genre as a means to explore what is too often the unnameable. A deeply aware film, “Rose Plays Julie” allows for the fantastic as a means and space of catharsis.

'Rose Plays Julie'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Playing: Starts March 19, Laemmle Virtual Cinema, digital and VOD

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