Set in Glasgow, WILD ROSE follows the story of Rose-Lynn Harlan (Jessie Buckley), a troubled young mother who has spent the past 12-months in prison. Upon her release she returns home to her children, who have been living with her disapproving mother (Julie Walters), and rather than resuming motherhood, she follows her dream of becoming a famous country music singer. In turn, despite having a natural talent, she lacks social grace, responsibility and personal accountability, and she continues on a course of self-destruction.
This film damn near wrecked me as I hopscotched through a gauntlet of emotions. I had anticipated a character I could champion and cheer for, and one whose story would inspire. I had expected a straight forward tale of rags to riches, but Rose-Lynn was insufferable. I wanted to shake sense into her... to tell her to snap out of it... and no matter how talented she may have been, she didn't deserve the success she so desperately craved. My heart broke for her children as all hope for a better life crashed down before their eyes. To put it simply, Rose-Lynn destroyed me.
And how amazing is that? To feel so passionately about a character! To be wholeheartedly invested in their story! To feel such a strong resentment means to have been fully engaged in their tale, and I was in its grip from the get go. Director Tom Harper – whose previous work includes This Is England 86, War & Peace and The Woman In Black 2 – has delivered an excellent character-driven drama with an infectious infusion of country-twang. He understands that country music isn't for everyone and with help from Nicole Taylor's wonderful screenplay he allows Rose-Lynn's passion to project the genre beyond its divisive bounds. He places subtle moments of fantasy throughout the narrative, avoiding kitschiness, and doesn't overpower the story with musical numbers. The songs are carefully placed and entirely effective, and sung with absolute conviction.
Jessie Buckley is outstanding as Rose-Lynn, and offers an awe-inspiring (and agonising) performance that warrants whatever accolades befall her. Her character arc is a slow trajectory, and plays out contrarily to other similarly themed films. While there is an obvious formulaic structure beneath WILD ROSE (which it adheres to) it meanders along its path at its own pace, refusing to succumb to obvious conventions. Much like lyrics sung at a pivotal moment in the film, there ain't no yellow brick road running though Glasgow, and Rose-Lynn's self-destructive story echoes that sentiment. Buckley's turn recalls Bette Midler's gut-wrenching performance in The Rose, and reflects a similar tone.
Julie Walters is reliable as Rose-Lynn's worn out mother, an important authority in her daughter's messed up life. It's a fascinating performance from Walters, given that she is playing to type yet still able to leverage an unassuming nuance. It also marks another ironic counter-act to her legendary turn as the unrefined Liverpudlian in Educating Rita, a film not far removed from WILD ROSE. An added pleasure is Sophie Okenedo (Hellboy, Ace Ventura 2) whose infectious smile lights up the screen. She plays the wealthy employer who provides unconditional support to Rose-Lynn while oblivious to her true identity. Okenedo is lovely and contributes warmth in spades.
I do not enjoy country music and yet I was swept up by it. Like Crazy Heart, Nashville and Tender Mercies before it, the power of story transcends musical genres. WILD ROSE, in fact, plays out like a county song. It is a bitter-sweet serenade where reward doesn't come without hard work and pain, and that mantra applies to the movie-going experience itself. Frustration and anger pave the way to satisfaction and fulfilment, making WILD ROSE a highlight of the year's cinematic calendar.