On the surface, London Film Festival’s Rose: A Love Story is a very simple, yet refreshingly new twist on the vampire horror genre by presenting us with a film about the lengths someone will go through to protect and care for a loved one, but as someone who has had to watch his own wife struggle through debilitating issues, it’s use of vampirism as a metaphor hit me like a ton of bricks.
For quintessentially in-love couple Rose (Sophie Rundle) and Sam (Mat Stockoe) that potentially destructive force is the fact that Rose is a vampire, and the couple have retreated to a secluded home in the middle of the wilderness in order to try to protect Rose and keep her out of harm’s way, but also so that her condition can be managed without potential risk to others.
Naturally, with a film title like Rose: A Love Story, certain expectations are already being set up and for the most part, the film stays fairly true to portraying an intimate, personal love story complete with classic romantic drama tropes, buoyed by the fact the two leads are a real-life couple with obvious chemistry. However, as you also know this is a horror film, Jennifer Sheridan’s debut slowly builds up all of the trappings of tensions, horror and dread as it’s made clear it’s only a matter of time before the couple’s idyllic set-up and careful preparations are interrupted by the real world, with obviously tragic results.
Sheridan also has an excellent eye for setting, composition and lighting, candles are used sparingly to give the whole film a gothic feel throughout, the snow-covered landscape that surrounds their home add to the isolation of their situation, plus everything looks better with now and the neon blue of the ‘leech’ room and ambient red of the candle-lit bedroom provide interesting variation in the film’s colour scheme.
Rundle and Stockoe are superb as the lovestruck but tragic couple. Stockoe, in particular, is captivating as the tender, caring and clearly devoted husband who would do anything for his wife, including siphoning off his own blood with leeches to keep her sated and at one point, even considering killing another human being who threatens their situation. But, there’s also a refined and underlying rage and anger as well as a forceful forlorn determination in Stockoe’s performance.
Rundle, on the other hand, is quiet, diminutive and often convincingly unconfident. Despite coming across as a softly spoken and lovely woman, she sees herself differently to how her husband does and feels like a monster, like something other than human. She shies away from Sam’s compliments; she doesn’t like it when he looks at her, but equally, she is comforted by him. Rose’s vampirism is very cleverly hidden for most of the film, with little visual flourishes and dramatic moments peppered throughout to underscore what her affliction is. As a result, we see her as human first making her a very empathetic figure.
The entire time we see these two interacting we are almost forced to consider a parallel life for them where things are normal, they can just be in love and happy, without a care in the world. The loss of a possibility that never existed is such a heavy, uncomfortable feeling in the pit of your stomach and the tragic sense of what-could-have-been really comes across in their performances.
As a result, we instantly recognise the vampirism that Rose is struggling with and fighting against as representing many things in the real world that affect couples. For me, it’s the unsuccessful two-year struggle I’ve had with my wife to start a family, for others it’ll be trying to live with a partner dying of cancer or, perhaps, struggling with drug addiction. Consequently, we understand these two characters implicitly, we recognise when Rose heart-breakingly gives up and prepares to make plans to get Sam out of the way so she can kill herself.
The fact that Rose and Sam are childless is not an accident and neither was the scene where Sam reacts with genuine joy when a character in a story Rose is writing is revealed as pregnant. Once again, it’s a subtle reminder of a future these two have probably conceded they will never have. The fact then, that it’s a surrogate child of sorts when runaway Amber (Olive Gray) gets caught in one of Sam’s hunting traps, who ultimately undoes the equilibrium of the situation and causes the destruction of the makeshift family unit is elegantly horrific.
The sudden and bloody climax finishes as suddenly as it begins making it a sharp, effective pay-off to the tension building that preceded it for most of the film and the ticking time-bomb of the situation. However, it becomes more poignant and melancholic when you realise that they were so close to finding a way out and coming up for air, but everything fell apart at the last minute.
The film’s final shot of the unsuspecting angry mob heading towards the house, oblivious to the fact they’re likely to meet an untimely end as a result of the tragic consequences we’d just seen, whilst evocative of Shelley’s Frankenstein, is a warning to us all. If we demonise and vilify people when they’re struggling, if we don’t support and help people when they need it, everyone ends up being caught up in the fallout of the destruction. Ultimately there’s nothing more worthy of support, and nothing more potentially catastrophic than love.
Please check out our reviews for the rest of the horror films that screened at London Film Festival this year here