A carcass of a cow is being dissected by veterinary students. Mechanically they chop and slice, organ by organ, searching for signs of the infectious disease which caused her demise. Whatever it is, we learn she has passed it onto her offspring, and should they not find it, the calf will meet the same fate.
This is a scene in Rose Plays Julie, the powerful fourth feature from Irish filmmaking duo Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor. The eerie sentiment judders throughout the film, asking us to inspect what we pass down from generation to generation. Something genetic that sits undisturbed in the gut like a dull ache? Or a little malignancy that will spread into the thing that destroys us? How about trauma, pain – vengeance?
The film follows Rose, one of the veterinary students living in Dublin, played with chilling focus by Ann Skelly (an uncanny cross between Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer and Saint Maud’s Morfydd Clark). After making the discovery that she was adopted at birth – and that her original name was Julie – she travels to London to track down her biological parents. Ellen (Orla Brady) is her birth mother, a successful TV actor who initially regards Rose with caution and distrust. All these years later, Ellen does not want to be found or dredge up the pain of a troubled past. She has a family of her own now. But faced with the unavoidable physical manifestation of a life she has tried to forget, she tells Rose who her biological father is, and the truth is more shocking than Rose could have anticipated.
Even in its darkest moments, we are reminded of human resilience and our propensity to salvage hope after trauma.
The film – teetering between horror and drama (because its tale of monstrous men cloaked under the ‘nice guy’ guise of our male colleagues, friends and mentors is all too plausible) – clangs loudly amid the landscape of #MeToo revelations, artfully exploring sexual violence and double lives. Rose wanders around her campus like a ghost, neither here nor there, skin so translucent she could fade into the ether at any given time. The film explores identity and questions what validation we need to make us real and palpable. Would we feel like we existed less if we knew we weren’t meant to be? But even in its darkest moments, we are reminded of human resilience and our propensity to salvage hope after trauma.
When Rose finally tracks down her father, Peter Doyle, a revered archaeologist played with slippery charm by Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones), the overwhelming sense of dread pounds like blood in the ears. Rose has donned the disguise of a black bobbed wig and fake (but once real) name Julie, pretending to be an actor researching a role which requires her to volunteer on an archaeological dig – the same way Ellen met Peter all those years ago. The disguise is unnecessary, considering that Peter isn’t even aware of her existence or how history has echoed the pain he inflicted, but she has a plan and the film’s uneasy pace is building up to something cataclysmic. On the dig site, Rose’s cold gaze homes in on Peter from a distance as she asks other volunteers what he’s like. "Yeah, he’s nice," they reply. That's the message Rose Plays Julie is trying to hammer home: they often are.
Arguably, the film is a little generous with its perpetrators. A scene in which Peter, hunched and paunchy, stares regretfully out of a window, humanises him. He looks suddenly brittle and filled with remorse, as if his contrition might absolve him. In real life, we are all too aware that powerful men get away with terrible things and go on to live long, successful lives.
Throughout the film we see the promising young vets study the ethical dilemmas around the euthanasia of badly behaved healthy animals: kindness or justice? When the violation is so stomach-turning and the indignation white-hot, what’s the difference? As the momentum thrusts us towards the film’s huge climax, the two become inextricable.
Rose Plays Julie is very much about mothers and daughters but also female rage and is everything we wanted from Promising Young Woman in the most unexpected way. We are so used to seeing men overcome and women lose (and lose again) that it’s only long after the cathartic end scene has had you in its lethal chokehold that you realise you can finally exhale.
Rose Plays Julie will be released in UK and Ireland cinemas on 17th September.