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Viewer Guide: “12 Angry Men” and “Rose Plays Julie”

September 3, 2021 | Richard Peña


12 Angry Men (1957)

This week’s classic is 12 Angry Men, the 1957 courtroom drama starring Henry Fonda that marked Sidney Lumet’s theatrical feature film directorial debut.

Adapted by screenwriter Reginald Rose from his Emmy Award-winning teleplay, 12 Angry Men dramatizes the deliberations of 12 jurors—known only by their jury box seat numbers—as they review the facts of what initially appears to be an open and shut case of a teenager murdering his father, complete with a clear motivation and firsthand witnesses. Eager to get on with it and return to their lives, the jury’s initial vote reveals that everyone is ready to convict without hesitation—that is, everyone except Juror 8, played by Fonda. Unable to say he is beyond a reasonable doubt in confirming a guilty verdict, Juror 8 begins to ask questions, and the case’s insurmountable wall of evidence steadily begins to erode. And as the afternoon wears on and the arguments become angrier and more personal, the term “jury duty” begins to take on its true meaning, forcing each man to look past his own weaknesses, prejudices, and personal failures to see the facts.

Also featured in the outstanding ensemble cast are Martin Balsam, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, and Lee J. Cobb as the jury’s most vocal objector, whose fierce determination to convict gradually reveals a painful family tragedy.

Although just one glance at the all-white, all-male jury of 12 Angry Men reveals how much has changed since 1957, the film’s central theme remains as relevant as ever: a democracy is only as strong as the responsible participation of its citizens. Henry Fonda had been a fan of screenwriter Reginald Rose’s original CBS television version in 1954, and became attached as both actor and producer; ultimately, Fonda found movie producing so difficult that he never took on producing another feature film again. Without the money to hire an established movie director, Fonda decided to take a chance on a young TV director with a reputation for being good with actors, a shrewd decision that launched the feature film career of Sidney Lumet, whose extraordinary filmography would include such classics as Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network and many more. Although a box office disappointment, 12 Angry Men nonetheless went on to garner first prize at the Berlin Film Festival as well as Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay. In 1997, Showtime aired a TV film remake directed by William Friedkin, starring Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott in the key roles of Jurors 8 and 3.


Rose Plays Julie (2019)

This week’s indie is Rose Plays Julie, an Irish psychological drama from 2019 co-directed by Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy.

Ann Skelly stars as Rose, a young veterinarian student whose blank demeanor masks a powerful yearning: adopted at infancy, Rose can no longer suppress her longing to find her birth mother, despite the “no contact” restriction of her adoption papers. Learning that her biological mother was an actress named Ellen, played by Orla Brady, Rose travels from Dublin to London in order to covertly track Ellen down, eventually locating her at work on a film set. Rose later even pretends to be an interested buyer of Ellen’s townhouse. While Rose’s overtures are initially not welcomed by Ellen, relations between the estranged daughter and mother begin to change when Rose learns the circumstances behind Ellen’s decision, as well as the identity of her biological father, a well-known archaeologist played by Aidan Gillen. Finally armed with the unexpected truth of her origin, Rose embarks on a risky masquerade, only to come face to face with the violent truth of her past as well as her own vengeful quest for justice.

With its disturbing plot elements and focus on shifting identity, Rose Plays Julie has echoes of a kind of Oedipal Greek tragedy, as well as the psychological hall of mirrors seen in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. However, the married producing and directing team of Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor also manage to weave in a very perceptive look at the fragility of mental health in contemporary society. Released in England in October 2019, plans for the film’s U.S. release were unfortunately derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, although the film was eventually screened at the Hamptons International Film Festival in October 2020. Making her feature film debut in Rose Plays Julie, actress Ann Skelly is currently featured in the HBO series The Nevers. Irish actor Aidan Gillen’s many film and television credits include Queer As Folk and The Wire, and as well as his recurring role as Petyr Baelish on Game of Thrones.

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema.

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