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Non-Review Review: Rosie

Rosie is a a very timely piece of Irish cinema, but one that never loses sight of the humanity of this national crisis.

From beginning to end, Rosie is infused with an endearing humanity. Writer Roddy Doyle and director Paddy Breathnach keep the story tightly focused on one particular family caught in the midst of the homeless crisis. Breathnach often literalises this, with a handheld camera that keeps the film literally centred on the face of the eponymous protagonist. Even in wide open spaces, even in public, even when she’s the only adult crossing a green or a schoolyard, Rosie is so tightly focused that it feels claustrophic and almost suffocating.

This is the point, of course. Rosie is a very visceral film, and with good reason. Doyle and Breathnach work hard to ensure that the audience feels ever minor crisis, and that it understands precisely how precarious the situation facing this family happens to be. A delayed lunch break seems catastrophic, a child spending time with a friend seems like a disaster. Time is fleeting, and always slipping through the fingers of its protagonist. When life seems to unfold moment to moment, there is no opportunity to catch her breath or to worry about the bigger picture.

Rosie is a fascinating piece of Irish cinema, both timely and intimate, both reflecting contemporary culture and telling its own story within that framework. It’s an impressive piece of work.

To be fair, there are occasionally moments when Rosie seems a little heavy-handed and didactic in its portrayal of a family in crisis. Although Doyle’s script works hard to provide definition for the characters who populate the story, there are moments when they feel almost like ciphers. The characters in Rosie face impossible situations that escalate dramatically, operating under untenable conditions and wrestling with unbearable tensions.

It is no surprise that Rosie herself breaks down at multiple times over the story, when events overwhelm her; that she occasionally snaps at the people around her, even those who don’t necessarily deserve it. It is a bigger surprise that she can function at all in that situation. There are times when, like the eponymous character in Michael Inside, Rosie and her family feel more like a civics thought experiment than real people. They are exemplars facing impossible situations.

This is something of a thorny issue when it comes to dealing with crises like these. There’s the famous story of the migrant who gained French citizenship after pulling a child from a burning building, inviting people to wonder whether that level of heroism was necessary to merit fair treatment by a flawed system. The characters in Rosie do everything right, and are seen to do everything right. Within the nuclear family and among friends and colleagues, any failings are temporary, immediately regretted and quickly forgiven.

It feels very much like Rosie is stacking the deck slightly in order to reinforce its (very timely and very necessary) political point about the absurdity of the homeless crisis in Ireland. After all, if this family cannot get a roof over their heads, what chance do less cohesive units (or units that cracked more severely under the strain) have of surviving? Rosie feels a little bit like it’s playing with loaded dice in this respect. (It is hard to imagine anybody objecting to Rosie’s family getting council housing, despite the classist biases that exist in the country about social housing.)

This is a minor complaint. Roddy Doyle’s script offers a compelling sketch of these characters trapped in an absurd nightmare. Leaving work, John Paul rings Rosie to discover that she has yet to find accommodation for the night. She is still in the car that has become a makeshift home for the family. “Will you still be there when I get out there?” he asks, illustrating quite quickly how transitory their life has become. For her part, Rosie struggles to acknowledge her situation, telling friends they are “between homes” and insisting, “We’re not homeless.”

Rosie covers a little over a single day in the life of the family, and very effectively captures the sense of perpetual crisis in which the family have found themselves. Rosie’s lack of a fixed abode is a continual source of chaos, as she tries to manage the lives of her four children while living out of a car. Every minor complication and misfortune means more time is lost, which means less time is spent looking for a room for that night, let alone any longer term objective. Rosie skilfully illustrates how these minor problems compound, how one small unforeseen action snowballs.

Breathnach’s direction is a huge part of this. Rosie constantly feels closed in and claustrophobic, emphasised by the director’s use of long takes and tightly-framed compositions; it frequently seems like Rosie can never escape the camera as it follows her around, never allowed a moment to herself within a scene transition or some space to breath within a cut. The camera is constantly pushing in, reinforcing Rosie’ anxiety that she is being watched and judged every moment of every day. “You’re a good mother,” an official tells her. “Can I get that in writing?” she asks in reply.

There’s a perverse irony in this, in the sense that Rosie is trapped despite the fact that she is rarely enclosed within four walls or under a roof. The car that houses the family becomes a grim Kafka-esque nightmare; it is at once a wardrobe and a laundry basket, a kitchen and a bedroom, an office and a waiting room. Low angles reinforce this sense of anxiety and dread, the camera often positioned to illustrate the cramped surroundings and the fixtures with which the characters must wrestle to find their space.

Rosie benefits from two other key advantages. The first is a central performance from Sarah Greene as a mother who is functioning at peak efficiency despite the situation in which she has found herself. There are times when Rosie herself feels a little too perfect and immaculate, her responses when confronted with absurdity and cruelty a little too reasonable and a little too measured. However, Greene makes sure that the audience always feels the character’s internal crisis, the emotions pulling her each way, and the desperation beneath the organisational ability.

Rosie also benefits from a script by Roddy Doyle. Doyle is one of the finest portrait artists working in prose, able to beautifully and evocatively sketch the realities of modern working class Dublin with an economy and efficiency that escapes many of his contemporaries. There is a humanity that runs through Rosie that prevents it from ever feeling too abstract, whether it’s something as ominous as the particulars the tension between Rosie and her mother or something as simple as the details of a Lady Gaga concert taking place in Dublin that weekend.

There’s a surprising amount of warmth in Rosie, even if it quickly becomes clear that the characters have to generate it themselves. Rosie is populated with little moments of the family trying to find some small measure of joy in their impossible situation, and they succeed more often than one might expect. In the world of Rosie, these small moments of joy are to be savoured. They are fleeting, after all.

For a film about the unfolding housing crisis in Ireland, Rosie is surprisingly low on righteous anger. Rosie is not a story about systems or failures, never particularly engaged with systemic failures or political disappointments. It is not a film that channels rage at how the state has let its people down, instead telling a story about the people trying to navigate this horrific situation as best they can. Truth be told, Rosie is a film that seems too exhausted by the crisis to be angry. It’s easy to understand why. At an economic eighty-six minutes, Rosie manages to capture that exhaustion.

Rosie is an import and timely piece of cinema. It is also a very good one.

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