Rose: A Love Story is yet another example of art-house horror that plays coy with its genre elements. It’s the kind of film that wants to be more than just horror, but winds up ladling on heavy-handed symbolism and doom-laden portent instead of being scary. Directed by Jennifer Sheridan, the film follows Rose (Sophie Rundle) and her husband, Sam (Matt Stokoe, who also wrote the screenplay), a couple who live a sequestered life deep in the woods. She sits in their small cabin writing all day, while he wanders the forest trapping game. Things are immediately off kilter; Sam locks Rose in the house before he leaves for the day, and frantically races home when he realizes he’s stayed out for too long. Rose keeps investigating her own face in reflective surfaces, as if studying it for minute changes. Then there’s what appears to be a nightly ritual, as Sam sits in a room with UV lamps and attaches leeches to himself, then grinds them up and feeds the bloody mess to Rose. It’s pretty clear what’s going on here, even before Rose dons a mask to step out of the house and stares wild-eyed at the sight of blood, but the filmmakers needlessly delay the big reveal.
Rundle and Stokoe — apparently a couple in real life — are quite good as lovers deeply devoted to each other, but also buckling under the weight of their secretive, highly regimented existence. Here, vampirism is essentially a metaphor for cancer, or any debilitating disease, with Sam watching his beloved wife change into something unrecognizable, incapable of stopping the process. For her part, Rose insists that Sam has done all he can and implores him to leave her, an interaction familiar from any number of run-of-the-mill relationship dramas. Instead of leaning into the horrific nature of Rose’s affliction, Stokoe the screenwriter introduces outside conflict, first with a wholly unnecessary subplot about an errand boy who rips Sam off, and then with an unwelcome visitor who accidentally gets stuck in one of Sam’s wildlife traps. This young woman, Amber (Olive Gray) throws the couple’s careful routine into disarray; Sam views her as a threat to his and Rose’s tenuous stability, while Rose thinks Amber might be an escape hatch for Sam to still have some kind of normal life (although it’s unclear if this would be in a romantic or fatherly capacity). This development is introduced fairly late in an already brief runtime, giving it little room to breathe and just delaying any developments regarding Rose’s condition. Instead, there’s something of a narrative game being played as the film feints towards the idea that Sam might kill Amber to protect Rose’s secret. There’s a lot of talent on display here: Sheridan has a keen eye, juxtaposing the claustrophobic confines of the cramped home with wide-open vistas of vast wilderness, and the (very few) scenes of outright terror are appropriately horrific. But this is basically a relationship drama masquerading as a vampire movie, and Stokoe’s screenplay doesn’t do enough to justify mashing these disparate elements together. All in all, this is a missed opportunity that mistakes restraint for seriousness.
Published as part of London Film Festival 2020 — Dispatch 3.