The story of an adult searching for the biological parent who gave them up at birth is played as screwball comedy in David O Russell’s Flirting with Disaster and as wrenching melodrama in Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies, both from 1996. The discordant mood of Rose Plays Julie, from the Irish writing directing team of Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor, offers none of the comforts of those genres.
The spadework has already been done before the film begins: Rose (Ann Skelly), a veterinary student with a pale, haunted face, knows that her birth mother is an actor named Ellen (Orla Brady), but calling her and hanging up is as far as she has got.
Rose watches footage of Ellen playing a cop, opening fire on a young woman who morphs into a snarling fanged ghoul. The clip strikes a chord, and not only because she has just come from a lecture entitled “Euthanasia and the Healthy Animal”. Perhaps she sees herself as monstrous, too, and liable to be put down – or as someone who was lucky to escape such a fate.
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Posing as a potential buyer, she visits Ellen’s house, and encounters her own adolescent half-sister. As she creeps from room to room, Rose seems like a potential cuckoo in the nest – though it’s truer to say that she is the fledgling booted out of the tree, come to claim her rightful place.
It isn’t confrontation she desires, but acceptance, clarity, love: “Do you ever think about me?” she wonders. When Ellen takes her into the middle of the woods – a classic fairy tale setting – she gets an explanation she hadn’t bargained for. Rose had imagined herself as the product of a besotted but panicked young couple. In fact, Ellen was raped. As Rose hears this, Skelly indicates from beneath the cover of her arctic expression the collapse of everything she thought she knew about herself. Birdsong fills the air, making no concession to her torment.
Having put her energies into that bid for maternal recognition, Rose is now compelled to find her father, too. All these years later, Ellen still can’t say her attacker’s name, so she types it into Rose’s phone. There is a jolt of grim humour when the word “Peter” produces the suggestion “Andre”. Good old autocorrect, always hopeless at reading the room. Except for when Ellen starts to key in Peter’s surname (“Doyle”) and it helpfully offers “Fouled” instead.
Peter (Aidan Gillen) is a celebrity archaeologist who has published a book called Below the Surface. “What I’m most drawn to is unlocking the past,” he says. Rose has the same mission. Having always felt her identity to be amorphous, she has no trouble pretending to be an actor called Julie (her birth name), who wants to join Peter’s dig as research for a role. The wig she wears for the task adds a femme fatale touch.
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Molloy and Lawlor have described their films as studies of “identity under duress”. This applies strongly to Helen, their disquieting 2008 portrait of a teenager who only feels fully defined after being cast as a missing classmate in a crime reconstruction. In the limbo of Rose Plays Julie, characters live in temporary homes, connecting meaningfully only in transient spaces (hotels, cars), and chasing the illusion of stability or self-knowledge; Peter even receives a note from his wife asking: “Who are you?”
The experience of watching the film can be likened to coming round from anaesthetic – everything feel distant and not quite real. The camera glides and prowls. The streets are largely empty, background noise reduced to a hush, the antiseptic homes and hallways regarded with the same detached eye as the dramatic Irish landscapes or the visceral goo of veterinary dissections. Stephen McKeon’s sinister score contains occasional twinkling notes and a soaring female choral voice that seems to express Rose’s hopes and horrors in turn.
Rose Plays Julie is essentially a macabre twist on the 1961 Disney comedy The Parent Trap, in which Hayley Mills starred as identical twins plotting to piece their broken family back together; it was the perfect wish-fulfilment fantasy for any children of divorce. Molloy and Lawlor (who happen to be married with a daughter) show an unwanted child reuniting her mother and father not for the purposes of reconciliation but for justice, even revenge. It’s still a parent trap, only this one has teeth.
“Rose Plays Julie” is in cinemas from 17 September
This article appears in the 15 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Fateful Chancellor