Writer: Matt Stokoe
Director: Jennifer Sheridan
Exploring the bonds and obligations of love is not the usual premise for a horror film, but this is how Rose – A Love Story sets itself apart.
Screening at the BFI London Film Festival, the story centres around a young couple, Rose and Sam. Played by Sophie Rundle and Matt Stokoe, they have moved to a cabin located deep in a pine forest. Living simply and quietly, this couple’s isolation – surrounded by snow-dusted pine trees – feels idyllic. Rose is writing a novel, while Sam runs the house. But as director Jennifer Sheridan takes us in for a closer look, we see that Rose – thin and pale – is not well. With Rose prone to fainting and exhaustion, Sam has made it his job to ensure she is looked after. The tension builds, not because of an unspoken threat, but because the responsibility of being Rose’s carer weighs heavily on Sam, more than he wants to admit.
An aversion to natural light is a key aspect of her illness. This is something Sam can control, and through a series of rituals, daylight is systematically shut out. Date night for the couple is an evening walk through the woods. While night is traditionally a pressure point of anxiety and fear, Sheridan makes darkness both friend and foe. The darkness is here not to obscure but to shield. We are being protected from a secret.
The couple’s isolation is suddenly broken one night when they hear a scream coming from the forest. A voice pleads for help. Sam heads outside, and finds a teenage girl, Amber (Olive Gray) caught in one of his animal traps. With her leg badly broken, Sam has no choice but to take her back to the cabin. The teenager’s arrival acts as a catalyst. She bonds with Rose quickly, admitting she is two months pregnant. The girl then begins to see how the couple live. The fault lines in Rose and Sam’s relationship are exposed, as she begins to ask questions – the very ones we are asking. The household threatens to break apart.
At ninety minutes long, this film hits that sweet spot loved by film fans. The exposition within this time frame is slow and methodical, as screenwriter Matt Stokoe reveals clues, like traps, for us to discover. The horror builds through unsettling scenes that reveal the hipster, self-sufficiency dream to be a brittle facade. This is a sophisticated approach to horror, with the ability to persuade those who doesn’t consider themselves to be fans of the genre.
With such a small cast, the film depends on the ability of Rundle and Stokoe to create a believable relationship. They argue about intimacy – Rose is afraid her illness is ruining Sam’s life. As Rose, Sophie Rundle is physically delicate, but determined to make the best of things. Sat at her typewriter, she plugs away at her writing as Sam goes out to hunt. Aware that this is not a life Sam would have chosen for himself, she sees the arrival of Amber as an opportunity to push him back into civilisation. Rundle cleverly draws upon darker notes, fleshing out her character with each reveal. Stokoe articulates Sam’s frustration, as he struggles to maintain order. As the film enters its third act, we realise the responsibility Sam feels extends beyond keeping Rose safe.
As the film concludes, the pace builds furiously, tipping over into pure horror. Sheridan has not quite prepared us enough for what follows, but that is entirely the point. Even in the final moments, Sheridan extends the story into a confrontation that will be played off-screen. It is a brilliant touch, playing with the audience’s curiosity. There is more to be uncovered, but we will not see it. For now, we have seen enough.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7 to 18 October