Writer-directors Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor have returned to the London film festival with their best work yet. At one level, it’s another eerie and uncanny movie shot with cool blankness and emotional distance; a meditation on the themes they have already explored in earlier movies such as Helen (2008) and Mister John (2013): ideas about double lives, impersonations, alternative existences and identities. But Rose Plays Julie has much more dramatic solidity and punch. Whereas some of their earlier work, however intriguing, sometimes looked like melting away into the mist, this film grabs you by the throat.
The drama begins by seeming to be hardly more than a poignant evocation of loneliness and regret. Then it escalates into an edge-of-the-seat suspense thriller of the sort that Chabrol might have admired, or even something written by Joe Eszterhas that you could have rented on VHS some time in the 80s. Yet even Eszterhas might have have flinched at the pure transgression of what is being implied. And by the end, it’s got something very real to say about #MeToo issues. There is scope for disagreement about the final balance of thriller and real-world drama, and some unresolved plot-plausibility implications, but there is no doubt about the chillingly accumulated potency and force of this movie, or the quality of the performances.
It is a story about two women, one younger and one older. Rose (Ann Skelly) is a veterinary student with an inscrutable, watchful manner, who has recently found out she was adopted and has discovered the identity of her birth mother. This is Ellen (Orla Brady), a very successful TV actor whom Rose begins to stalk online. Discovering that Ellen is selling her house, Rose poses as a buyer and manages to gain access to the property and talk to her, revealing who she is.
The confrontation is traumatic: having come through some tough times, and having now made a real success of herself, with a family of her own, Ellen does not want to rake up a painful past. But finally, she will reveal that the past is even more painful than Rose could have imagined. Then Rose begins to seek out her real father, Peter, a celebrity archaeologist played by Aidan Gillen, and she does so with a fake name – “Julie” – and, somehow inspired by Ellen’s profession, disguises herself with a wig. She is playing a very dangerous game, teetering on an abyss of horror.
Metaphorical possibility is everywhere about. Archaeology, and the digging up of the past, is an obvious example. There is also the grim subject Rose happens to be studying in her veterinary classes: the euthanasia of animals, and the ethically tricky business of euthanising healthy animals. We see what Rose sees: animals being wheeled in, killed and then dissected. At first, these scenes, clinically filmed with a lack of immediate emotional content, seem to be pointing to the disconnectedness and alienation in Rose’s heart. But there is also a real plot point to it all.
The most prominent metaphor is of course acting: Ellen has been acting ever since Rose’s birth, acting the part of someone who hasn’t been hurt, acting the part of someone who is a success inside and out, acting the part of someone who doesn’t care about her daughter. And it is only now that she can cast off the theatrical costume of pretence.
It is a really powerful film and Brady’s final dialogue scene exerts a lethal grip.
• Rose Plays Julie is released on 17 September in cinemas.