Imogen Poots is commanding as heiress-turned IRA moll Rose Dugdale in Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor’s measured portrait


Source: Bankside Films


Dir/scr/ed: Christine Molloy, Joe Lawlor. Ireland. 2023. 97mins

On paper, Rose Dugdale always made a dramatic headline. In reality, though, the heiress-turned-IRA moll was disappointingly dull as a person: a British dilettante who fell into the sticky bog of Irish independence, giving two fingers to her rich parents as she tipped over. She saddled up for many causes, and Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy pinpoint precisely what was so needy about Dugdale, who presided over one of the largest art-heists in history in 1974 for the IRA – a 19-painting haul which included a privately-held Vermeer.

As played here by Imogen Poots, Dugdale was a rebel looking for a cause, following a road of radicalisation which went from being a debutante to PPE and feminism at Oxford University to robbing her own house to give to the poor and, eventually, the IRA: a much nastier business. A recent documentary series Heiress, Rebel, Vigilante, Bomber made the claim that she also manufactured explosives which killed people: the case is well-known. Following Rose Plays Julie (2021) the austere Baltimore is another high-end arthouse prospect for Lawlor and Molloy, but with every film they edge slightly more into the mainstream and this continues that route.

There is a jarred edge to the film-making which results in a sensation of almost constant, biting discomfit

Baltimore has two significant assets as it moves chronologically around two key stages in her Dugdale’s life: Poots, whose deliberate delivery will be familiar to fans of Lawlor and Molloy’s work, is mesmerising. And there is a jarred edge to the film-making, the feeling of the camera being tilted out of everyone’s comfort zone, which, when matched with a Berlioz-tinged score from Stephen McKeon, results in a sensation of almost constant, biting discomfit. 

The audience is introduced to Rose, born Bridget, in full heist mode: wearing a red wig and sporting a French accent, she is leading an armed raid on Bessborough House in April 1974, aimed at raising cash for the IRA and forcing the release of prisoners Dolours and Marion Price from prison. The film switches back and forth to the immediate aftermath, when Dugdale rented an isolated safe house in the country. If she thought being brought up in a stately home was stifling, she’s going to find out the true meaning of that word in a small Irish village in 1974.

To complicate matters further, Dugdale is pregnant, by fellow armed revolutionary Eddie (Jack Meade), who, in real life, would later go on to kidnap a Dutch businessman, demanding Rose’s own release from jail. It would almost be comical, if the IRA didn’t actually kill people, something the film avoids underlining. She is accompanied on the raid and in the safe house by two other armed men, young Martin (Lewis Brophy) and the smarter, savvier Northern Irish-accented Dominic (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, smooth as silk). Nothing escapes Dominic’s gaze. As, one by one, the men disappear into safety in Baltimore, where the IRA is actively fundraising, Rose stays on: mesmerised by the paintings and determined to pull this off alone. 

The explanation of art-loving Dugdale’s joining the IRA is brisk. It comes after her activities in Oxford when she watches TV footage of Bloody Sunday in 1972. There is much stress on the fact that the IRA of that time was socialist-leaning, which also attracted the heiress, yet most people do not leap out of their stately homes to take up guns on seeing some news documentary footage, no matter how intent they are in giving away their fortunes. A toxic mix of justice-seeking with attention-seeking is a given, but Rose steadfastly remains a cipher.

Red is a motif. As a child, she is shown being blooded after killing her first fox on a hunt on her parents’ estate in 1951, and red slashes across the screen in opening and closing credits. The rest is mostly chiaroscuro, designed to amplify the nature of the art and its attraction for her.  As the score hinges on and off its Symphonie Fantastique hook, the viewer is left, like its protagonist, with the faces from the art Rose Dugdale stole impassively looking down at her actions. It feels like some sort of judgement, but Molloy and Lawlor would never be so obvious in their crafted, subtle work.

Production companies: Samson Films/Desperate Optimists

International sales: Bankside

Producers: David Collins, Joe Lawlor

Screenplay: Christine Malloy, Joe Lawlor

Cinematography: Tom Comerford

Production design: John Hand

Editing: Joe Lawlor, Christine Malloy

Music: Stephen McKeon

Main cast: Imogen Poots, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Lewis Brophy, Jack Meade