By SEAN MCGEADY
Starring Matt Stokoe, Sophie Rundle, Olive Gray
Directed by Jennifer Sheridan
Written by Matt Stokoe
Mini Productions, Bone Garden Films, The Development Partnership
It’s been a long and lonely year. With the world gripped by a deadly disease it knows frighteningly little about, lockdowns have forced many to go months without seeing friends and loved ones, while others have been trapped in close confines with them.
Though written in 2017, before the world was brought to its knees by COVID-19, writer and star Matt Stokoe’s delicate debut feature is more relevant right now than it might be in any other period in history. Directed by Jennifer Sheridan, also making her feature debut, ROSE: A LOVE STORY premiered at London Film Festival 2020, and concerns a couple collectively suffering from a mysterious malady but in very different ways.
Sam (Stokoe) is a gruff hunter-gatherer well versed in survivalism and sustainable living. He moves efficiently through the thick woods that surround his off-the-grid homestead, its perimeter rigged with alarms, his gun always loaded. But there’s a lock on the outside of his cabin door too. Is he trying to keep something out – or something in?
Shot in the snow-coated forests of south Powys, Wales, ROSE is cold and crisp and replete with stunning cinematography courtesy of director of photography Martyna Knitter and aerial photographer Woody James. Its day-faring exterior shots, all crisp arctic blues and whites and dense, earthy greens, look even bolder when compared to those staged inside the cloistered cabin. It’s here, among darkened corners and shadowy hallways, that we find Sam’s wife Rose (Sophie Rundle, Stokoe’s real-life partner), quietly grappling with a condition both novel and familiar: she’s a vampire.
This is a film about the ways we manage not only our afflictions but also the effects they have on others
Stokoe’s script never explicitly spells out the vampirism at its heart. This is an understated picture that shares more with mournful postmodern efforts such as Claire Denis’ TROUBLE EVERY DAY and Tomas Alfredson’s LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (to which this film could be a sequel) than it does Tobe’s Hooper’s operatic LIFEFORCE. But Stokoe’s tale is more restrained than even those films. ROSE is the kind of “realistic” vampire movie that Milo from THE TRANSFIGURATION would applaud. For a long time, if not for Cato Hoeben’s by-the-numbers score, you might not recognise its genre roots at all.
Key to this love story is its domestic setting and its depiction of vampirism as a humdrum disease whose obstacles must be managed in the same quotidian ways as any other: patience and precautions. To stem Rose’s regular cravings for claret, Sam dutifully retires to a UV-lit room with a good book and a jar of leeches. Rose drinks the resulting tonic. When Sam brings in slain rabbits from the traps outside, Rose dons an infused face mask to stop her scenting the red stuff and going feral.
As a piece of bonafide pandemic iconography, the face mask provides the film’s clearest connection to COVID-19. But the links are more than superficial. This is love and loyalty under threat, the story of a self-isolating couple whose relationship is strained by a dangerous contagion for which there’s no known cure. Sam cares for his wife unconditionally but that doesn’t stop him sniping at her. Rose struggles with having sentenced her husband to a life of sorrow. With vampirism standing in for any number of conditions – COVID-19, cancer, eating disorders, mental illness – ROSE asks whether it’s ever fair that someone should dedicate their life to prolonging another’s.
Unable to leave her home, Rose is even writing a novel, that lockdown stretch goal that so many furloughed fledgling novelists set to work on and so few have finished. But Rose does, and in its shock ending there lies another example of what could have been had her disease not upended her and Sam’s life. Though it goes unsaid, the traditional nuclear family is off limits here. Rose allows her protagonist to achieve what she can’t.
The scene in which Rose reads her novel to Sam is one of the movie’s strongest, in part because it sells the central relationship in a way that others struggle to. The fact that Stokoe and Trundle are betrothed perhaps points towards the script as the problem, as opposed to the couple’s chemistry, which shines through naturally here but is less clear in other, more actorly sequences.
The core relationship is tested further when, in the film’s biggest contrivance, a stranger turns up uninvited. Good-natured or not, Amber (Olive Gray) threatens the couple’s bubble and therefore everyone’s safety, Stokoe here hinting at multiple ways his movie might end.
Though the script tactfully suggests and then sidesteps schlocky tropes throughout, it’s not entirely novel. Its infected-protector narrative and its portrait of vampirism as a debilitating illness rather than a superpower should be familiar to genre lovers. Still, ROSE deserves to win fans for its retooling of vampire-related conventions, even if its drip-fed lore serves a story too sedentary for some.
The circumstances through which Rose contracted her unnamed ailment are not covered. This is a film about the here and now, and the ways we manage not only our afflictions but also the crippling effects they have on others. Eventually Rose and Sam’s management falters, setting up a hurried ending that many may find unsatisfying. But maybe that’s appropriate. After all, in 2020, such circumstances are largely out of our hands. We don’t always get the chance to say goodbye.