Rose: A Love Story, 2020.
Directed by Jennifer Sheridan.
Starring Sophie Rundle, Matt Stokoe, and Olive Gray.
Gripped by a violent, terrifying illness, Rose lives in seclusion with her husband, but the arrival of a stranger shatters the fragile refuge they have built.
Isolation is very much the theme of 2020 in a uniquely global sense, and it goes without saying that we’re inevitably going to end up with a slew of me-too, post-pandemic horror films for years to come.
And though Jennifer Sheridan’s directorial debut Rose: A Love Story was filmed before COVID-19 rocked the world, its cabin fever-laced, illness-centric premise is undeniably relevant to our beleaguered present – face masks and all – even if it doesn’t quite add up to a fully investing sit.
In a remote British woodland, Rose (Sophie Rundle) and her grizzled husband Sam (Matt Stokoe, who also wrote the film) live out a quaint, simple existence in a cabin-like home far away from civilisation. Their waking life is defined by management of Rose’s mysterious blood condition, one which has seen Sam takes measures to protect them both that could be called paranoid. Their solitude is upended, however, when the outside world comes a-knocking.
For the bulk of its runtime, Sheridan’s film is steeped neck-deep in ambiguity; it’s made abundantly clear early on that Rose is a deeply anxious person with crushing self-image issues, and we see flashes of what her illness may lead to, but nothing close to definite. Sam, meanwhile, is quick to anger and deeply concerned about maintaining their solitary life, fretting over the petrol supply, hunting animals for food, and curiously using eels to treat his own blood.
Sheridan’s methodical approach best approximates the subdued cult horror hit It Comes at Night, concerned less with overt incident and more with uneasy mood and quiet suspense. For a while it certainly works; the faint noise of wailing in the woods registers the requisite discomfort, and there’s curiosity to see just how far down the genre road Sheridan will travel.
For 90% of the film, little effort is made to explain the mechanics of Rose’s condition, which isn’t inherently an issue, focused as the film is more on the two characters and their relationship – per the title. It’s certainly preferable to endless exposition dumps to bring the audience up to speed, though there’s also a point where many will want a satisfactory pay-off, and it’s sadly one the film just doesn’t have up its sleeve.
The second half is largely concerned with the interloper who disrupts their dynamic, but in striving for tension these scenes end up feeling rather rushed, resulting in situations which prove more frustrating than dramatically potent. This leads to a contrived ending which doesn’t nearly rouse the desired emotion, despite the undeniably committed efforts of the three main cast members.
It’s also shot with considerable, lean skill by Sheridan and her DP Martyna Knitter, making solid use of the bleak, wintry visuals to generate a stark – if not particularly unique – atmosphere. Composer Cato Hoeben meanwhile utilises eerie choral chants and ominous strings to try and mine as much anxiety out of the scenario as possible.
Even when the pic falters dramatically, the efforts of Rundle and Stokoe are absolutely beyond reproach – thoroughly believable as a couple and each palpably harbouring their own multi-stranded disquiet about their increasingly desperate situation.
All in all, though, this is a textbook example of a modest genre film that’s slight to a fault, touting a timely premise and airy style, yet feeling rather undercooked in the scripting department. Restraint was clearly the intended mode here, but in the end it’s an exasperatingly opaque film which finally deigns to genre typicality in its unconvincing final few minutes.
Though compellingly acted, Rose: A Love Story ultimately feels like an uninspired, self-consciously coy grab-bag of indie-horror cliches.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.