Rose (aka Rose: A Love Story) (2020)

“Falling in love with somebody is like, um – it’s like being pinned down by some great big animal before you even realise that it’s been following you.”

So, some way into Jennifer Sheridan’s feature debut Rose, says Sam, played by the film’s writer Matt Stokoe. Rose is certainly a love story – indeed A Love Story was its original subtitle – and it traces the precarious if committed marriage of Sam to Rose (Sophie Rundle) as they eke out their existence in a remote woodland cabin, trying as best they can to close out the rest of the world. Yet if this is a locked-in romance, Sam’s predatory analogy also plays a key rôle here. After all, Rose dreams of a wolf (shot in extreme close-up) hunting a wild rabbit, even as her husband traps real rabbits – and occasionally larger prey – to bring home for his pot. Rose herself has a different diet, personally supplied by Sam (with hirudinoid help), even as Sam receives a monthly supply of generator fuel and mail from a man he meets far from the house, out on the road – and so long as all these supply lines remain open and regular, and sickly Rose can stay locked inside the darkened home that they have made together, their love can go on. 

We know from early on that there is something weird going on in this relationship. It is not just the couple’s voluntary reclusion, but also Rose’s similarly voluntary imprisonment in the cabin (sometimes even locked into a single room), and the fact that Sam feeds her a porridge of leeches gorged on his own blood every night. Sam’s love keeps them together, and glues them to their survivalist, isolationist routines, even as Rose’s love has her repeatedly suggesting that Sam should leave. They also find ways to escape their confined domestic space: on an old-school typewriter, Rose is tapping out a novel whose romantic plot, unlike her own, spans several international locations; and on the only walk that they take outside together, in the wintry woods late at night, Sam regales Rose with stories that conjure an imaginary holiday on a faraway tropical beach. Their reality is much more limited, and even this strange, hermetic idyll that they have created will be threatened, both by a consequential change to Sam’s supply arrangements, and by the unwelcome arrival of a stranger (Olive Gray) who stumbles into their world with her own desire to escape.

From early on, there is a genre element to Rose, but for a good long while it remains subdued and ill-defined. This generates great tension, as we watch the couple’s painstaking system slowly unravel, and wait for the horror to burst out of its careful containment; but the delay also means that Stokoe’s screenplay can give these characters time to breathe, and the viewer opportunity to discover at leisure the nature of their peculiar codependency. And so Sheridan’s chilly film sensitively explores the routines that maintain – but can also undermine – any long-term relationship. Here the habit that is an essential part of marriage is dysfunctional from the outset, proving highly vulnerable to external forces – and when change comes, it comes with speed and violence. We never really find out how Rose and Sam got to where they are – but it is a destination point familiar from many a post-honeymoon marriage, as a couple seeks mutual warmth within their own fragile ecosystem, and shuts out everyone else. The situation in which they have become willingly trapped may have been designed to keep a bloodthirsty beast tamed, but in fact it has made monsters of them both

While this couple’s feelings for each other run deep, they cannot last forever, ensuring that Rose is ultimately a love story of the tragic variety. It also, with its infectious illness, surgical masks and house arrest, resonates uncannily with the Covid dispensation of 2020, when all couples have been locked in together, and wary of contact with others. 

© Anton Bitel