Wild Rose, reviewed here by Helen Tope, is showing in our cinema until Saturday 11 May.
Rough, tough and just out of prison, Rose-Lynn Harlan dreams of becoming Country music’s next superstar. Raised and living in Glasgow, Rose’s ambition – to travel to Nashville and make it big – seems as far removed from reality as it’s possible to get. Newly-tagged and on parole, Rose lands a cleaning job with a wealthy family, fronted by naive mum Susannah (Sophie Okonedo). Rose is overheard singing by Susannah’s children, and Susannah uses her connections to get Rose a meeting with Radio 2 legend, ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris. Bob – an authority on Country music – tries to persuade Rose to look at her own life for inspiration. It is a message she is not ready to hear.
The mother of two young children, Rose’s relationship with them is deeply fractured after a year-long stint behind bars. The children remain attached to their Grandma (played by Julie Walters), who tries to instil the basics of good parenting into her daughter. But Rose struggles with responsibility – the call of the spotlight is too strong to ignore.
Directed by Tom Harper, whose credits include Peaky Blinders, Wild Rose is not a simple tale of a neglectful mother, chasing stardom and sequins. Rose, played by Jessie Buckley, may be boisterous and untamed, but her genuine desire to do better makes her likeable from the start. Reminding us that even Johnny Cash did time, the film doesn’t shy away from Rose’s history, or the mistakes she continues to make on the outside.
Buckley has the full measure of her character, right down to her white cowboy boots. While the outfits and attitude are over-the-top, Rose’s passion for music is unshakable. When she sings, the trappings of ‘Wild Rose’ fall away, and we’re left with a singer who understands what it takes to tell a story.
Rose quickly learns that connections are not enough. She makes it to Nashville but finds she is just one voice among many. Talent here is a commodity, and there’s a waiting list just to be heard. Rose returns home, not in failure, but with a sense of clarity. Songs written from experience and authenticity are what underpins Country today. The question facing Rose is whether she has enough left in her to deliver.
With a set list to die for (the soundtrack features Emmylou Harris, Kacey Musgraves and Ashley McBryde), Wild Rose will convert even the most Country-resistant. Also featuring original songs, co-written by Jessie Buckley, screenwriter Nicole Taylor and composer Jack Arnold, these moments light up the film. With Buckley’s earthy tones, the music is immediate and visceral, and it refuses to let go. This isn’t the polished performance of a Nashville native, but a sound that’s real and raw.
Buckley first came to public attention when she appeared in the 2008 BBC talent show I’d Do Anything. Competing for the role of Nancy in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Oliver Twist, Buckley lost, coming second. But Buckley’s career has flourished, with Jessie landing the role of Anne Egermann in A Little Night Music, and television appearances including War and Peace and the upcoming HBO drama Chernobyl. Buckley brings everything she has learned to this film, and combined with a formidable singing voice, the result is a character full of doubt and contradiction. Rose can be her own worst enemy, but we root for her anyway.
Buckley is supported by a stellar cast – Sophie Okonedo as Rose’s employer is slightly underused, while Julie Walters, as Rose’s mum Marion, gives the film a necessary depth. Anchored in the real world, Marion wants Rose to acknowledge her responsibilities.
The film is careful not to moralise the story too closely. Rose’s misdemeanours can be attributed to bad judgement, rather than bad character. Surrounded by positive influence, and the hope of something better to come, Rose strives to make the best of her life.
While the film doesn’t make Rose’s choices easy, the way forward becomes clear when Rose recognises that she can find a way to work towards her dream, without sacrificing the delicate relationship she has with her children. Rose’s distance from the heart of Country becomes immaterial, as she realises the importance of finding her own voice. The journey she needs to make is one of discovery, not formula. Nothing more is required than three chords and the truth.