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Rose Plays Julie review – an identity thriller you can’t take your eyes off

Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy's dazzling and evocative film explores serious themes while functioning as unashamed genre fare

Irish born, London-based writer/director duo Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy have lasered the generational scars of the Irish into a minimalist thriller with their latest Rose Plays Julie, a tense, uneasy film that holds the viewer tight and puts matchsticks in their eyes so that they're unable to look away.

Rose (Ann Skelly), a veterinary nurse in training at a Dublin university, has always felt like she is playing a character. Adopted as a child, she was given the name Rose, though “Julie” appears on her birth certificate. Having always associated more with that name, she tracks down her birth mother, and travels to London to confront her.

At first, Rose Plays Julie seems to fall into typical indie movie tropes. Rose’s profession as a vet nurse leads to more than one scene of a horse splayed out on a table, the camera static and at distance. Haneke-like scenes of animal pain feel perfunctory and unoriginal even as they slowly develop Rose’s alienation. The film is better when it breathes, though, and Lawlor/Molloy have the confidence to take their time in creating an ambience of effective depression.

As the title suggests, performance plays a large part in proceedings. Rose dons wigs and wears assumed identities to get closer to the truth. It’s been that way for her forever. Before long, she discovers the harrowing truth of her origin. Her birth father, it turns out, is Peter (Aidan Gillen, in typically slimy form), an archeologist. As Rose attempts to get closer to him by showing up at a dig, she adopts a new persona: that of Julie.

At 100 minutes, Rose Plays Julie has a glacial pace that feels like freezer burn. This is in part conjured by Lawlor/Molloy’s convincing use of slow motion to stretch out the feelings at the start and end of scenes, giving an operatic friction to their bold close-ups. The spectre of Neil Jordan’s arch-erotic thrillers hang heavy, and this film shares a study of Irish psychological dislocation seen in both The Crying Game and Angel. Like Jordan, Lawlor/Molloy can be heavy-handed. The choice of profession for these characters speak volumes about them: Rose is a caring vet nurse, while Peter the archeologist’s past is dug up.

The setup is pure psychological thriller. But at each turn, the film deflates expectations. In the moment, this can be unfulfilling. Why aren’t the characters doing more? But Lawlor and Molloy’s sense of atmosphere and dread is so simple, their use of locations so elemental, that Rose Plays Julie lingers in the mind, its meanings and associations morphing from one outcome to another. The film’s climax hinges on an ingenious use of a Chekov’s syringe full of euthanasia fluid. You have to wait, but the pay-off is so very worth it.

Rose Plays Julie is in UK cinemas from 17 September.

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