The Coronavirus pandemic has provided additional subtext to so many films in the year since the first lockdown was announced; the horror genre in particular. The virus has thrown the nature of many relationships into sharp relief, as enforced isolation began to fray formerly sturdy bonds. This aspect certainly adds an extra layer to the intense, claustrophobic marriage of Rose (Sophie Rundle) and Sam (Matt Stokoe), although the exile of the couple at the centre of Jennifer Sheridan’s debut is entirely self-imposed. Rose is an impressive, dark romance about devotion and obligation that acts as a stark metaphor for those suffering debilitating illness, and those who care for them.
Rose and Sam have decamped from society and are living a self-sufficient existence in a remote cabin somewhere around Northumbria. Sam plays the model husband, going out hunting while Rose works on a novel on her typewriter. But why has Sam locked her in? When Rose cuts her finger, why doesn’t it bleed? And what is with those leeches? Before long, it’s clear that Rose is suffering from some disorder of the blood. A disease that is not merely dangerous to her, but one that makes her a threat to anyone with whom she has contact as well.
Real-life partners Rundle and Stokoe do a tremendous job with this bleak love story, as Rose and Sam dance around the inevitable. It is acute about the nature of a terminal illness and the toll that it takes. “This poison is inside me, not you,” Rose says to Sam. But that is only true physically. Sam’s infected with the conflicting vapours of love, duty, anger, sadness, and resentment. Rose is clear-eyed in its message. The former subtitle to the film is, ‘A Love Story’, and it is very explicit about the distinction between love and romance. It is however, more successful in manifesting an airless atmosphere of stoicism and dread than of horror.
Despite sticking rigidly to the principle of show-don’t-tell, a rudimentary grasp of horror tropes will be enough to piece together the nature of Rose’s malady. This confirms Rose and Sam’s predicament before the writing has really established them as a couple. That’s not to say that their strange routine isn’t depicted with an eerie elegance; the rhythms of which will be an eccentric echo of the lockdown rituals of many isolated couples. However, we never really get a sense of the pair without the spectre of disease casting its shadow, and the occasional moments of romance or horseplay do little to redress this. By the time young runaway Amber (Olive Gray) gets caught in one of Sam’s rabbit traps – there is constant symbolism of capture and release throughout – the wedge this threatens to drive between Rose and Sam never feels as sharp as it should be, and the horrifying consequences lack the corresponding emotional weight.
Rose is another intelligent low-budget horror that foregrounds the plight of a couple – like Spring and Honeymoon (which Rose most closely resembles) before it – to good effect. Horror thrives on empathy, and it is easy to find commonality with Sam and Rose, even with the fanciful nature of her disease. Stokoe’s script wisely leaves the nature of the illness vague. It doesn’t matter how long she’s had it, where she caught it, or from whom she caught it. Sam and Rose are caught up in the perpetual present of survival, of squeezing as much time as they can, even though the existence seems miserable. This is what Rose captures so well, and it is this desperate clutching at the remnants of their lives together that is most horrifying.
Available On demand from Mon 4 Apr 2021