In the Irish drama Rose Plays Julie (2019), written and directed by Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy, Rose (Ann Skelly) is a university student studying veterinary medicine who feels like she doesn’t know who she is. She was adopted as an infant, and has the name “Julie” on her birth certificate; as “Rose,” she grapples with feelings of being unwanted and displaced, utterly adrift in the world. It’s not clear what stirred up these feelings with newfound vigor at this particular moment in her life, but Rose is committed to discovering her past — she tracks down her birth mother, Ellen (Orla Brady), and soon starts stalking her, despite Ellen’s reluctance to see her. Ellen is acting in a film about a nun who has psychic powers, and Rose spies on her; she visits Ellen’s house for sale and poses as a potential buyer, chatting to the real estate agent and Ellen’s 16-year-old daughter Eva.
This encounter with Ellen’s other daughter perhaps sets off a spiral of imagining the different life she might have lived had she not been given up for adoption. If Rose were Julie, she would look different — she’s certain Julie would have short hair — and would have a distinct personality. Rose fantasizes about the different scenarios about her/Julie’s birth and path to being given up for adoption, always hoping that, in some way, she was wanted.
But what she uncovers about the circumstances of her birth is not the rosy image she hoped for. On a tense walk in the woods, Ellen reveals that she was raped, and that nobody knows about Rose/Julie. As Ellen shares her pain, we linger on Rose’s face as she reacts, and realizes that she was unwanted and the result of deep injustice. The film makes frequent use of slow-motion sequences accompanied by a score of haunting, droning singing, as Rose’s word grinds to a near-halt and her reality appears to crumble. The atmosphere is dark and cold, yet there is deep unrest in the hollow silence; the narrative slowly simmers, rising up to a boil, as Rose tries to reckon with this newfound knowledge and becomes determined to track down her father.
And so, her performance begins: Rose dons a short-haired wig to see Peter Doyle (Aiden Gillen), who runs an archaeological dig site, and she transforms into “Julie.” She pretends she is researching a role in a play as an archaeologist, and embarks on a search to discover who she is meant to be by being someone else for a while. A feeling of deja vu hangs over the events, or perhaps rather jamais vu, experiencing situations that are both recognizable and unfamiliar as Rose plays Julie and acts out a life she might have lived. She lives out a charade, Ellen lives in a former show home, and everyone in this dark world is playing a part.
Peter is a media darling with a predatory leer, masking his true intentions until he attacks Rose in an act of sexual aggression. Ellen is the bona fide actor of the bunch, and her emotion also feels most raw and viscerally real, her face a storm of emotion. While the film places its focus on Rose, Ellen undergoes a harrowing journey, as sees the child she gave up for adoption and relives memories of the sexual assault that led to this child
Lawlor and Molloy offer no shortage of grotesque and upsetting imagery, as Rose encounters animal carcasses, horse autopsies, and euthanasia during her training as a veterinarian. But even as the plot veers from adoption drama toward rape revenge narrative, it is at its best when it goes for quiet desperation over shock value. When one of Rose’s interactions with Peter grows deeply uncomfortable as he attempts to force himself on her, stomach-churning dread transforms into rapid panic as Rose fights back; but the most impactful moment is perhaps when Ellen delivers a powerful monologue demanding Peter listen to her testimony of the assault decades prior.
This slow-burn thriller, with immersive and aura-generating visuals, is led by riveting performances from Skelly and Brady, and dives into a deeply unsettling situation, probing at the emotional turmoil and fractured sense of self each woman faces. As Rose plays Julie, she might not find exactly what she set out to uncover — but instead finds a strange kinship forged in shared trauma.