Wild Rose, 2018.
Directed by Tom Harper.
Starring Jessie Buckley, Julie Walters and Sophie Okonedo.
An aspiring country singer struggles to make her dream of travelling from Glasgow to Nashville a reality, despite the prison tag around her ankle and the two kids she has thus far failed to care for.
Country music, as Jessie Buckley’s protagonist Rose-Lynn Harlan asserts throughout Wild Rose, can be boiled down to a simple motto first coined by Harlan Howard in the 1950s – it’s three chords and the truth. The genre has a beautiful simplicity to it that allows it to serve as a forceful expression of emotion, driven by raw passion and heart as it much as it is by twanging guitars and cowboy hats.
Tom Harper, who directed the recent BBC adaptation of War and Peace, introduces the audience to Rose-Lynn on her way out of prison, where she has served a year sentence. A fellow inmate yells that she’s going to be “the next Dolly Parton” and she awkwardly manoeuvres her white cowboy boots over the prison issue electronic tag attached to her ankle. When she returns home – after a brief outdoor sexual liaison – it’s to her mother Marion (Julie Walters) and the two children she left behind when she was sentenced.
Naively, Rose-Lynn assumes she can simply pick up where she left off – leaving the kids with their grandmother while she pursues her dream of travelling to Nashville and becoming a country star. A reality check arrives pretty swiftly, though, when she is forced to take up a job as a cleaner for wealthy Susannah (Sophie Okonedo) and adjust to parenthood once again.
Rose-Lynn is a likeable figure and any audience immediately sympathises with her underdog desire to succeed, particularly given her evidently prodigious movie talent. An early scene in which she takes to the stage at her old musical haunt and delivers a raucous rendition of Chris Stapleton’s ‘Outlaw State of Mind’ is euphoric in a way that makes it clear that, in the small pond of Glasgow’s country scene, Rose-Lynn is a big fish. Nicole Taylor’s script, however, imbues the character with more complexity than that. This is a flawed woman who, despite laudable aims, has messy priorities and makes decisions that are downright irresponsible.
Buckley plays all of these nuances with consummate ease. Just as she did in the remarkable Beast last year, the former runner-up on BBC talent show I’d Do Anything is effortless in her ability to play with the audience’s loyalties and sympathies. Her singing performances are raw and powerful, while she’s heart-breaking as a woman who far too easily falls into taking the wrong approach to just about everything. She’s not cut out to be parent, trying to play infantile peek-a-boo games with her eight-year-old daughter, but we witness a stark, subtly played shift moments later when Rose-Lynn takes the child in her arms and Buckley’s physicality wordlessly communicates the triggering of maternal instincts.
The entirety of Wild Rose focuses on the difference between reality and perception. Rose-Lynn sees herself as a free-spirited “outlaw”, when actually she’s a young woman with responsibilities. Marion, played with exactly the gravitas and dry wit you’d expect from Julie Walters, is unable to see the true depth of her daughter’s talent through the fog of her poor decisions – “there’s no shortage of folk who can sing”, she dismissively states. Okonedo’s posh English woman, too, sees Rose-Lynn as a pure, undiscovered diamond in the rough, but is woefully uninformed about the shackles – both literal and metaphorical – imposed on her life at home.
It’s a movie about relationships between female characters, who are all flawed in their own ways despite their honourable intentions. The bones of the film are textbook musical underdog story, but Taylor’s script is keen to find the nuances in the material. Country music may be simply “three chords and the truth”, but Wild Rose makes it clear that there’s room for complexity in that maxim. The scenes between Buckley and Walters, especially, showcase a bond that, while naturally strong, has been corrupted by a lack of communication and misguided assumptions on both sides.
That’s not to say that there’s any shortage of uplifting moments. Harper finds pure joy in the musical sequences, whether conjuring a band to accompany Rose-Lynn as she becomes lost in her headphones during a slightly booze-aided day of cleaning or stripping everything back for her to sing Wynonna Judd’s ‘Peace in This House’ with goosebump-inducing heart. The heavily trailed final song ‘Glasgow’, meanwhile, is a beautiful triumph, penned by Hollywood actress Mary Steenburgen. Tying the themes of the movie together with a bow, it’s conclusive proof of that simple but effective “three chords and the truth” motto.
At its core, Wild Rose is a universal story of the need to balance ambition with practicality. Buckley is ferocious in a star-making turn as a woman who believes, not unfairly, that there’s more ahead for her than the peeling wallpaper of a Glaswegian council estate. Harper and Taylor take the audience on a rollercoaster journey in which the protagonist is far from perfect, but there’s something about her that is impossible not to feel warm towards. She’s pursuing her dream at all costs and, when the credits roll, that’s enough to extract tears from the hardest of hearts.
This is a special, special movie and, between the spring onslaught of superhero adventures, it’s something that’s absolutely worth spending your cash on.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.