In Glasgow, the brash and fiery Rose-Lynn Harlan (Jessie Buckley) is released from jail, having served a 12 month sentence, and returns home with big dreams of heading to Nashville to be a country music sensation and when she secures a job as a housecleaner for the well-off Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), her incredible talent and fierce passion for country music is soon discovered and Susannah puts a plan in place to make Rose-Lynn’s dream come true, arranging for her to visit London for a live recording of a country music radio show and organising a massive crowdfunding event with several generous benefactors. But the time away in prison and the unwavering pursuit of her goal greatly alienates and separates Rose-Lynn from her two young children, who barely know and don’t want to talk to her, and puts a great strain on relations between her and her mother Marion (Julie Walters), tearing her apart as she is torn between her dreams and her family.
When looking at this film, there’s no better place to begin than the central performance from rising star Jessie Buckley. Having made a big impression with her excellent turn in War and Peace, and then later on in such projects as Taboo and, of course, her true breakout performance in Beast, Buckley once again proves that she’s a force to be reckoned with because in Wild Rose, she gives an incredibly powerful, passionate and multi-layered performance, showcasing her impressively grounded, natural acting talents and superb singing voice. The role of Rose-Lynn is very different from any of the roles that she’s played before and Buckley truly gets fully immersed in the role, embracing the character’s fiery, fearless spirit and cheeky humour as well as her brash, unpredictable nature and moments of uncertainty and inner turmoil; she’s a deeply flawed, three-dimensional and decidedly human creation and throughout the feature, we both support her in her pie-in-the-sky quest, having fun when she has fun and enjoying her singing and dancing around living rooms and stages, but she can also appear incredibly selfish and misguided and we lament her decisions as she often disappoints her children and casts them aside in order to focus on herself, though thankfully, she never once appears unlikable or annoying in tense moments such as these.
And, of course, Buckely proves herself to be quite sensational on stage and when performing the many country songs that pepper the soundtrack (JUST country – no western!), she belts them out with supreme gusto, a commanding stage presence and a truly excellent and natural singing voice, her performances often being the highlights of the film. Girl’s a real star and she could (almost) give Lady Gaga a run for her money!
There are also several able performances that make up the supporting cast but it’s Julie Walters and Sophie Okonedo who have the most to do; Walters is luminous and wholly believable as Scottish “granny” Marion and, while the role is nothing particularly spectacular, she always appears as a dignified and nuanced performer, mostly laying down the law with Rose-Lynn, rightfully fed up of her wayward ways, but she also exudes the warmth and kindness that’s essential to the story’s appeal. As for Sophie Okonedo, again, the part isn’t particularly memorable as such, but Okonedo is a constantly warm, caring and supportive presence – a kind of reverse “white saviour” role – and she too provides the dignity and heart that makes Wild Rose so emotionally affecting. Those two kids are fine lil’ actors, too!
With a screenplay by Nicole Taylor, Wild Rose has a solid story with good, naturalistic dialogue (though it occasionally falls into the trap of including a few “trailer worthy” lines about following your dreams and the like) and there’s plenty of perfectly pitched humour (proving itself to be naturally funnier than most of the studio produced comedies that are floating around), a sense of adventure and fun, and many hard hitting and emotionally tense scenes. It doesn’t always work as certain plot beats are slightly predictable and the whole thing is probably too good to be true (e.g. Susannah miraculously knowing ALL the right people, her organising a huge event and throwing loads of money at someone she barely knows, or Rose-Lynn being able to walk to BBC headquarters from a far off station in seemingly no time at all) but the moments of conflict in this movie work surprisingly well and, thanks to the finely tuned performances and thoughtful writing, you are fully able to empathise with the characters and are fully invested in what happens to them. It’s a great tale about an individual’s dreams and ambition, on the one hand emphasising how you can achieve success no matter what part of the world you come from, while also stressing how it’s also important to not lose touch with reality and that family is equally as important.
Having previously directed Jessie Buckley in War and Peace, as well as episodes of Peaky Blinders and Misfits, Tom Harper does a fine job of directing here; straight off the bat, he establishes an engrossing and engaging atmosphere, introducing the main characters with style and energy, and, for the most part, he keeps the film going at a great pace (though the film does tend to ramble on towards closing, unsure of when it should end), he balances the different tones effectively and he makes sure that the musical numbers are shot with clarity, passion and energy. And, importantly, Wild Rose has a brilliant soundtrack with tunes from the likes of Gillian Welch, Kacey Musgraves and, obviously, Jessie Buckley, and this film will surely make any non-believers see just how great country
and western music can be.