“Who are you?” That’s a question that rings throughout the work of Dublin-born film-making duo Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor. Through a series of mesmerising features, shorts and video projects, the pair have explored ideas of history and duality in ways that are simultaneously baffling and unsettling, playful yet profound. In Rose Plays Julie, which feels like a ghostly horror-tinged companion piece to 2008’s brilliant Helen, they once again address the concept of past and present coexisting through the medium of role-playing, conjuring a deceptively slick psychological drama (it’s their most accessible feature to date) while retaining the austere sense of distance and performance that has defined their intriguing oeuvre.
Ann Skelly is Rose, a veterinary science student who was adopted as a baby and who has recently discovered the identity of her birth mother, an actor named Ellen (Orla Brady) who, as fate would have it, once played a vet. Despite a firm request for no contact, Rose travels from Dublin to London to confront her mother, whose well-to-do domestic life includes a beloved teenage daughter, Eva (Sadie Soverall). Posing at first as a prospective buyer for Ellen’s house, Rose infiltrates her mother’s home, observing its showcase interiors with the air of an outcast doppelganger, marvelling at the life she never had.
Why did Ellen abandon Rose, only to raise and cherish another daughter? The answer, which I’ll leave to the film to reveal, leads Rose to Peter (Lawlor-and-Molloy regular Aidan Gillen), an archaeologist with a smugly saleable smile who’s in the middle of a dig, “unlocking the past”. Posing as an actor named Julie – the name on her birth certificate – Rose manoeuvres herself into Peter’s predatory orbit, keeping her true identity hidden in the hope of uncovering his.
In Molloy and Lawlor’s Antonioni-esque feature debut, Helen, a young woman playing a missing girl in a police reconstruction finds that the distinctive yellow jacket she dons for the role fits – in more ways than one. Similarly, in the follow-up feature Mister John, Gillen’s listless Gerry Devine travels to Singapore, where he winds up living in his dead brother’s house – wearing his clothes and perhaps rekindling his watery ghost.
In Rose Plays Julie, it’s a sharp-cut Modesty Blaise-style wig that becomes the titular character’s defining costume, chiming with her early musing that “when I think about ‘Julie’ I picture her like me, but different… different clothes, different accent, different hair”. Having explored stories in which characters become other people, this treads a more Dostoevskian path, leading its protagonist to wonder about her other self – “the person I was really meant to be. The real me”. The wig may be a disguise that allows the newly vengeful Rose to cover her tracks, but isn’t it also an attempt by someone who thinks they are “an aberration” to hide from themselves?
From an early scene detailing the veterinary rituals of putting down healthy animals (a recurrent theme) to a spiky climax that both fulfils and subverts thriller conventions, there’s a strong element of Greek tragedy underpinning Rose Plays Julie – a sense that we are watching an archetypal tale of betrayal and revelation playing out in miniature, its characters trapped within the stealthily creeping frames of cinematographer Tom Comerford. The domestic monsters of this story may have a #MeToo-era contemporary edge, but the underlying themes of what the film-makers call “identity under duress” are ancient and timeless.
Eerily ambient cues by versatile composer Stephen McKeon (who worked spine-tingling wonders on Mister John) evoke a whispering chorus of dread, echoing the low groans of Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s theme from The Shining and the ethereal notes of Barry De Vorzon’s The Exorcist III score to create something uniquely strange and unsettling.