It may be papered over with a thin veneer of horror tropes, but Rose: A Love Story is not your typical genre chiller. While it alludes to the supernatural, the film is at heart a romantic drama, which dips into horror territory only sparingly. The movie is a study of its two protagonists, their marriage, and the fragile life that they have built together. That it’s also a tale about vampirism is something of a footnote, and the genre elements are chiefly used to apply pressure to the character’s relationship, heightening the drama where necessary.
Sam (Matt Stokoe) and Rose (Sophie Rundle) live in a little house in the middle of a forest, miles away from the nearest small town. Their tranquil isolation is shattered when a young runaway (Olive Gray) falls foul of one of Sam’s traps, and they end up (begrudgingly, in Sam’s case) having to nurse her through her recovery. However, their guest soon ends up noticing strange things about Rose: she never leaves the house, claiming a skin condition that causes her to react to the sun. What’s more, she never eats normal meals, and Sam feeds her crushed leeches that have gorged on his blood…
For a film featuring vampires, there’s very little in the way of horror in Rose: A Love Story. However, what the film may lack in visceral shocks, it more than makes up for with its sense of creeping dread and fraught tension. Throughout the story, director Jennifer Sheridan maintains a palpable sense of precarity. We know that the life that the Rose and Sam lead is hanging by a thread, beset with the danger of discovery by outsiders. We also know that, despite Sam’s denial, Rose’s ‘condition’ is only worsening. Even when they attempt to regain some normalcy, going for a ‘date night’ by strolling through the woods, it isn’t long before an unsettling noise shatters their illusion of security. Though the film has a slow, deliberate pace, the tension is constant and is sure to keep audiences engaged.
As with any film that centres around a romantic relationship, it is integral that the pair share a bond that feels authentic. This is not a problem for Matt Stokoe and Sophie Rundle. Their performances are strong and the characters feel very well-rounded. Stokoe is particularly impressive as the stoic woodsman, who presents an icy exterior that belies a hidden warmth. Stokoe wrote the screenplay, and it’s especially interesting to note that this is his first feature role, one that he brings depth and gravity to.
Although the conceit is fantastical, the two actors approach it with a sense of realistic urgency that makes suspension of disbelief very easy to achieve. You could swap out vampirism here for any number of real-life debilitating mental or physical illnesses. Rose’s insistence that Sam should leave her because “This isn’t what you signed up for” would be just as heartbreaking.
Their fights feel real, and their moments of domestic levity are also endearingly true to life. Sam’s gruff and abrasive pragmatism occasionally being punctured by a joke from Rose, and the pair sharing a few hard-won giggles, feels like a recognisable relationship dynamic. The two performers share real chemistry. Sam’s volatile temper and violent outbursts can shock, but again they feel human. They are an inevitable result of the constant build-up of pressure and the weight of his self-imposed responsibility to protect their home and keep them hidden. It’s a dysfunctional relationship to be sure, but the audience is left in no doubt as to the bedrock of feeling that underpins it.
Only at the climax does the film spill over into outright horror. Having teased some horrific imagery throughout, the final denouement feels more than earned. Let The Right One In would probably be the best analogy to Rose: A Love Story. Both are films that use immortal monsters to tell a story about human fragility and enduring bonds. While Rose: A Love Story is more sedate and slower moving than its Swedish cousin, it packs a similarly emotional heft.