Directors: Joe Lawlor, Christine Molloy
Stars: Ann Skelly, Aidan Gillen, Orla Brady
I’ve recently been reading the second edition of Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ exceptional book Rape Revenge Films: A Critical Study. Grueling subject matter, for sure, but Heller-Nicholas chisels down into the tropes of the subgenre, its myriad splinters, and its potential to provide therapy and catharsis for viewers. The second edition expands on her original text by adding a chapter on female-made rape revenge films of the past decade, framing these new additions to the canon in relation to the #MeToo movement.
Within the body of the book, Heller-Nicholas observes that a large percentage of these films – old and new alike – employ strangers as their aggressors, when the facts about rape suggest that the ratio inclines in the opposite direction. Giving the attacker relative anonymity to the victim simplifies things. The lines of good/bad are easier to delineate, serving to propel the avengers to their inevitable violence.
Rose Plays Julie – the latest in a succession of small-scale offerings from filmmaking team Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy – bucks the general trend in this regard, affording us a far thornier proposition.
Rose O’Connor (Ann Skelly) is training to be a veterinarian. Aware that she was adopted at a young age (and having recently lost her adoptive parents), Rose reaches out to her birth mother, an actor named Ellen (Orla Brady). Unsatisfied with the results, Rose takes to stalking her mother on film sets and even posing as a prospective buyer of Ellen’s expansive detached country home. Ellen – who wanted no contact with her daughter – is initially shocked and standoffish, especially given Rose’s slippery methods of insinuating herself into her life. But, gradually, Ellen thaws and starts to communicate.
Among the things Rose wants is an explanation of her birth and subsequent adoption. It is at this stage in the story that Ellen reveals that she was the product of a rape and that the perpetrator was someone known to Ellen; a respected archaeologist named Peter Doyle (Aidan Gillen). Rose’s stalking skills continue, her target shifting from mother to father. Bewigged and posing as an actor, she approaches Peter to work on one of his digs in order to get closer to him… but to what ends?
Well, it’s easy enough to figure out, especially considering the module Rose is working on at college. But Rose Plays Julie is slipperier than anticipated. Without giving too much away, the climax of the film denies a level of agency from both mother and daughter, and an act of submission skewers the traditional sense of vindication expected from rape-revenge. Indeed, this is an oddball entry in the canon all round.
Skelly’s unblinking performance as Rose is coldly detached and, frankly, eerie. She walks lightly, stares intensely, appears broken or damaged long before she learns of her unsavoury origins. This allows for her subsequent choices to appear more ‘natural’ because there’s an edge of psychopathy in her from the very beginning. Yet we remain constantly, cautiously on her side; largely because Peter’s crime outweighs her own creeping indiscretions.
Gillen’s Peter isn’t a simplistic villain either. Make no mistake, when he shows his true colours, a monster is revealed, but he’s also intelligent, charming and suave when we wants to be. “It’s not nice inside of me” he says at one pivotal moment. It is clear that he has made himself into a very good actor.
The notion of performance runs through the entire piece, from Ellen’s job as a film and TV actor, to the assumed role that Rose takes on at the dig where she goes by ‘Julie’ – the name Ellen originally intended for her. Peter’s veneer completes the trinity. But Rose Plays Julie, by its very nature, asks us to consider the performance we expect from survivors of sexual violence. The unspoken pressure to act ‘normally’, to blend back into society, to keep quiet.
There are jarring elements here, particular the score from Stephen McKeon; a blowhard piece that frequently feels at odds with the pared-down nature of Lawlor and Molloy’s filming. It abuts the film awkwardly, even comically, and its tough to discern whether this incongruity is deliberate. Rose Plays Julie is (perhaps as ought to be expected) a particularly dour drama. Bled of primary colours aside from a few delicately implemented occasions, it’s a rigorous watch, one which coldly refuses to end comfortably.
The resolution is strange, denying its audience a complete sense of appeasement. In this one ultimately sees the endlessness of a survivor’s trauma and, perhaps, the futility of vengeance. The film leaves you with nagging questions; both in terms of plot lines that feel unsatisfyingly disregarded and (more positively) knotty questions about what we wanted anyway.