Director: Jennifer Sheridan
Screenplay: Matt Stokoe
Starring: Sophie Rundle, Matt Stoke, Olive Gray, Nathan McMullen
Duration: 96 min
BBFC Certification: 15
Rose: A Love Story beings in a rather rote fashion. A couple are living alone in a remote cabin in the middle of a forest. Broken CDs and cutlery hang from trees, desolately swaying in the wind, ready to chime at the merest hint of an intruder. The man goes out hunting, leaving his wife alone in the dark, moody house, where all the windows are mysteriously bordered up. A tension hangs heavily over the couple when he returns; something is wrong with the wife, something they cannot bring themselves to speak about openly. Their quiet life seems incredibly fragile. You know it will only be a matter of time before it is ripped apart.
There is something about the opening scenes of Rose: A Love Story that feels very dull and unoriginal as if it has taken the tone and mood of a dozen other horror films (2017’s brilliant It Comes at Night springs immediately to mind) and amalgamated them into its own uninspired take. The isolated couple. The remote location. The unspoken secret. You’re willing to go along for the ride, but there is a wearying sense of having seen it all before.
Yet as the scenes continue to unfold, slowly and steadily, something changes. The mood shifts and you find yourself sucked in as Rose: A Love Story gradually unveils its secrets like a closed fist slowly unfurling to reveal unexpected treasure.
The plot, as mentioned, feels familiar. Rose (Sophie Rundle, of Peaky Blinders fame) and her husband Sam (Matt Stokoe, who also wrote the screenplay) are living an isolated existence in a remote cabin in what turns out, surprisingly, to be the countryside of the U.K. (some of the opening shots certainly look a lot grander and more majestic!). Some mysterious illness is afflicting Rose, something that Sam is determined to help her with, even if that means cutting themselves off from the rest of society. They seem to be surviving and coping well when an unexpected accident means that they have to take a stranger, Amber (Olive Gray) in under their roof. Will they be able to send the stranger on their way before they discover Rose’s terrible secret?
What sounds like a decent combination of horror and thriller turns out, in the long run, to be something rather different and unique. While the film establishes and maintains an effectively sombre mood and tension throughout, this is less a horror film and more the study of a relationship. The metaphor at the heart of it feels rather obvious but it works well nonetheless. Rose’s mysterious illness could quite easily be a stand in for depression, cancer or any other long term condition. The crux of Rose and Sam’s relationship, and therefore the heart of the film, is the responsibility Sam feels in having to care for his wife and the guilt that Rose feels in being such a burden, with her illness stealing away what she sees as Sam’s chance to have a happy, normal existence. In essence, Rose: A Love Story is about the sacrifices you make for the ones you love.
This drama at the heart of the film is helped enormously by the chemistry between the two leads. This shouldn’t come as a surprise – Rundle and Stokoe are a couple in real life and their natural chemistry shines off the screen, making their moments of tenderness, fear and anger all the more believable. Stokoe’s dialogue helps too, feeling loose and natural during their scenes together.
This naturalism carries through when Amber arrives on the scene. Olive Grey provides a counterbalancing wry humour to Sam’s dour faced seriousness and ends up feeling as real and rounded as Sam and Rose despite having half of their screen time – a testament to the skill of both the writing and the performances as well as director Jenifer Sheridan’ skill in pulling those elements together.
Despite being more of a dramatic thriller than a horror film, Rose: A Love Story’s clever utilisation of familiar genre tropes remains effective. Despite firmly taking a backseat during most of the running time, the film’s horror elements never feel tacked on and Sheridan and Stokoe brilliantly manage to ground the film’s more fantastical elements in an earthy, prosaic reality. Genre fans may end up being disappointed, but for those willing to give into the film’s slow, sensitive exploration of a unique relationship might find themselves rewarded when the horror comes in sudden, startling bursts.
While the plot may stretch credulity once Amber arrives on the scene and while it may not be as dark or as terrifying as some horror fans may wish, Rose: A Love Story remains a taunt, riveting and effective genre hybrid. For a debut film it is undeniably impressive and certainly marks both Sheridan and Stoke as ones to watch in the future.
Signature Entertainment presents Rose: A Love Story on Digital Platforms 5th April