Wild Rose isn’t a fairy tale, but Rose-Lynn isn’t the kind of character who needs a fairy godmother or a white knight.
A rougher, realer, Scottish cousin to A Star Is Born, Tom Harper’s Wild Rose features a real-life star-is-born performance by Irish actress Jessie Buckley. The film’s gorgeous soundtrack, made up of past and present country hits—by artists such as Emmylou Harris, Chris Stapleton and Wynonna Judd—are mostly performed by Buckley (whose singing voice is also a revelation), and this well-curated assortment of tunes shows that Harper, Buckley, screenwriter Nicole Taylor and composer Jack Taylor are respectful towards and well-studied in American country music. And like any proper country ballad, Wild Rose contains plenty of heartbreak and grit to accompany its ascendant title character.
Wild Rose begins in Glasgow, with the titular Rose-Lynn (Buckley) being released from prison after a year behind bars. She’d been found with a bag of heroin, of which she insists she didn’t partake herself, and left her two children (Wynonna and Lyle, named after country royalty) in the care of her mother, Marion (Julie Walters). Prison apparently did little to tame the “wild” Rose, as she continues to alternately disappoint, annoy and offend everyone in her orbit, which costs her a job and stretches Marion’s patience to the limit. But Rose-Lynn has little time for anything that won’t help her towards her dreams of Nashville stardom, dreams which she has absolutely no clue how to turn into reality.
Needing a job, Rose-Lynn ends up as housekeeper to the wealthy Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), and as Rose-Lynn vacuums, she imagines a band joining her as she belts out country hits. Soon, her dreams come closer to becoming reality. But, perhaps because of its indie sensibilities, Wild Rose resists the obvious. Perhaps Harper and Taylor recognized there are plenty of films out there where all of the protagonist’s dreams come true, while also acknowledging that the opposite stories, ones where the protagonists dreams are proven impossible, have also been done to death. Instead, the filmmakers choose a dynamic middle ground for Wild Rose’s final section, one that examines the nature of what our dreams for ourselves really are.
Buckley, who has primarily worked as a member of memorable television ensembles (and, notably, given the nature of the film’s plot, got her start on a UK reality show), is extraordinary as both an actress and vocalist. Her scrappy features and low, clear voice help her to shape Rose into a Glaswegian mixture of a young Shania Twain and Gretchen Wilson, while her in-your-face character has the charm of a less humanitarian Erin Brockovich. If the industry does its job, Buckley will certainly be a factor during film awards season, and hopefully this is just the beginning for her.
While the chaotic Rose-Lynn is naturally the film’s driving force, Walters and Okonedo are both effective in supporting roles, with Walter’s Marion projecting exasperated maternal sturdiness while hinting at how she raised someone like Rose-Lynn, and Okonedo’s Susannah warmly bringing out Rose-Lynn’s best qualities. Harper shows a keen eye for human drama and (in collaboration with cinematographer George Steel) for bringing out the beauty in both Glasgow’s and Nashville’s chaotic urban centers.
In recent years, we’ve mostly seen this kind of musical journey as a part of a biopic, where the outcome, no matter how audacious, is known ahead of time. It’s wonderful to have a fictional musical portrait, one that is, as are the best musical stories, alternately unbelievable and completely relatable. Wild Rose isn’t a fairy tale, but Rose-Lynn isn’t the kind of character who needs a fairy godmother or a white knight. She’s real, she’s gritty, she’s heartbreaking and she’s beautiful, just like a great country song.