Written by Nicole Taylor
Directed by Tom Harper
Starring Jessie Buckley, Julie Walters and Sophie Okonedo
MPAA rating: R for language throughout, some sexuality and brief drug material
Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes
by Fiona Underhill
After starring in one of 2017’s best films, Beast (for which she should have received more awards-recognition), Irish actress Jessie Buckley returns in a central role as Rose-Lynn Harlan – an ex-convict from Glasgow who has ambitions of being a country (NOT country and western) singer. Both Buckley and her Beast co-star Johnny Flynn are singer-songwriters, but that film focused on their acting rather than singing talents. In Wild Rose, Buckley finally gets to stretch her vocal cords, in what is surely a passion-project for her.
Rose-Lynn leaves prison and is reunited with her children and mother (played by the magnificent Julie Walters). She is keen to get back to singing in a line-dancing bar, but her electronic ankle-tag has a curfew on it. She takes a job as a cleaning lady at the home of Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), who catches her singing one day and tries to help her in her career, by sending a video of her off to Whispering Bob Harris at BBC Radio 2. Rose-Lynn becomes increasingly torn between her ambitions for her career and her kids, which all comes to a head at Susannah’s birthday party, where she is supposed to be performing with her band to raise enough money to go to Nashville.
Director Tom Harper is known for British television including the phenomenal This is England TV series, Misfits, Peaky Blinders and War and Peace. But is really more the strength of the performances, more than the directing or writing (by Nicole Taylor) that carries Wild Rose, obviously combined with Buckley’s singing and her charisma when performing live. The soundtrack (filled with original tracks as well as covers of country staples by Emmylou Harris, among others) will hopefully gain a following, even if it is a cult one, in the vein of John Carney’s Sing Street. Julie Walters absolutely deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Judi Dench when it comes to Britain’s best actresses. She brings such a grounding humanity to the role of a woman who wants her daughter to face the realities of her life as a single mother in Glasgow, but also doesn’t want to see all hope and ambition die inside of her. Walters does embody a working-class woman of certain generation, who has had the same low-paying job for decades and who has barely ventured out of her city, let alone country.
Rose-Lynn is a flawed character, who frequently makes selfish choices. This is good from a social-realist aspect, but that doesn’t always smoothly dove-tail with the ‘feel-good musical’ vibe. There is one fantasy sequence – where Rose is cleaning Susannah’s house and musicians appear up the stairs etc and I wish the film had leaned into being a full-on musical at times, like the excellent Rocketman. The sequence where Rose-Lynn does make it to London to meet Bob Harris will warm the cockles of (older) British viewers but could be a little bewildering for international audiences.
Wild Rose is unusual in that it provides three strong central roles for women. Sophie Okonedo hasn’t had many prominent film roles since her early 2000s double-whammy of Dirty Pretty Things and Hotel Rwanda, but has been busy in British TV and theater. Her portrayal of a slightly naïve middle-class woman who wants to see the best in people is tender and vulnerable. The production design by Lucy Spink effectively shows the contrast between the two sides of Glasgow – that of tiny dingy council flats and the stunning historical home that Susannah owns with her husband, who has his doubts and suspicions about Rose-Lynn. Susannah’s husband has pulled himself out of the same estate as Rose-Lynn via the more prosaic route of being a salesman, whereas she has her poetic dream of “three chords and the truth.”
You could argue that the story goes in an unexpected direction, but the final act still falls into sentimental territory. Buckley’s performance is certainly emotional and tear-jerking, whilst constantly being undercut with typically Glaswegian humor. This film is absolutely a showcase for Jessie Buckley and should be a star-making turn. Hopefully, with the recent trend of rock musical movies, someone will make one about a woman and it can be a vehicle for Buckley. Wild Rose is an unexpected little British gem of a movie, which is as flawed and fabulous as its protagonist. Definitely worth seeking out, even if only for the performances of three great women – Buckley, Walters and Okonedo.