Dir: Tom Harper; Starring: Jessie Buckley, Julie Walters, Sophie Okonedo, Jamie Sives, James Harkness, Ashley Shelton. Cert 15, 100 mins
“Three chords and the truth” is the tattoo the Glaswegian singer Rose-Lynn Harlan (Jessie Buckley) has stencilled on her arm in Wild Rose – there to remind her why she loves country music. And Nicole Taylor’s screenplay confronts its wayward young heroine with as much misfortune and heartbreak as you will find in even the most overwrought Hank Williams ballad.
As a single mum fresh out of prison, with two kids to support, Rose-Lynn can barely afford to pay her utility bills. Underneath those cowboy boots, she wears an ankle tag. With a 7pm curfew, her chances of making it all the way to Nashville seem non-existent – the main bands haven’t even taken to the stage at Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry by that time.
From the moment we hear her singing Patsy Cline songs, though, Rose-Lynn’s talent and force of personality are apparent. But this is more than just another rousing, feelgood film about a talented outsider overcoming adversity. Wild Rose has some thorny observations to make about class, opportunity (or lack thereof), and family values.
Irish singer and actor Jessie Buckley gives a searing performance as the would-be Loretta Lynn from a Glasgow housing estate. She plays her role in the same reckless and uninhibited way as she did the young woman with the psychotic boyfriend in Michael Pearce’s Beast. Whether crooning through a letterbox to announce she is back home from jail, guzzling down her employer’s brandy, or having sex in the park with her even more delinquent boyfriend, she simply can’t be constrained.
There are echoes here of 1960s British kitchen-sink dramas like A Taste of Honey, in which similarly irrepressible, young working-class protagonists chafe against their backgrounds. Director Tom Harper (whose previous credits include TV’s War and Peace and The Woman in Black 2) highlights the social inequalities in Rose-Lynn’s world. Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), the affluent, middle-class woman in the big suburban house who hires Rose-Lynn as a cleaner, has the money and the contacts to play the system. The scenes between the two characters are toe-curling to watch. Susannah is portrayed ambivalently – she is well meaning and sympathetic, but patronising and sometimes grotesque in her high-handedness and sense of entitlement.
The men of Wild Rose are conspicuous by their absence. Rose-Lynn’s father is barely mentioned. Her boyfriend flits in and out of the story but is not to be relied upon. We learn very little about the male members of her backing band, who turn up and stoically play whenever she needs them. The most significant male figure in the movie is the BBC DJ, Whispering Bob Harris (cast as himself). In Rose-Lynn’s opinion, he is the only person in Britain who understands country music as well as she does. While Harris is a benign figure, Susannah’s husband, a self-made businessman, is strangely malevolent. He is instantly suspicious of the singer and seemingly determined to keep her in her own world – and out of his.
Rose-Lynn can barely even bring herself to own up to outsiders that she has children. They hold her back. She is too immature to look after them properly. Julie Walters excels as Rose-Lynn’s mother, Marion, a scolding and sceptical figure, trying to warn her daughter of the damage her fantasies of country music stardom are doing to her family.
“You don’t stick at things,” her mother chides her, but Rose-Lynn is far too stubborn to give up on her dream. Marion, who has never got “further than Dunoon” herself, can’t help but admire her daughter’s determination to escape.
In a soft-centred story like this, you know that the misery and bad luck will always have an upside. The more Rose-Lynn suffers, the more heartfelt her songs will become – and the quicker she will grow up too.
Wild Rose has plenty of gentle and ironic humour along the way. When Rose-Lynn is wearing her country music gear, her little son asks her what she is doing, “all done up like a fish supper”. Slide guitar may fit well over scenes from US-set movies like Paris, Texas but seems very incongruous when heard at the breakfast table on a damp, grey Glaswegian morning. Country bands in the city have bizarre names. For example, one is called Mississippi Tundra.
But Harper includes some corny moments. When Rose-Lynn is making a demo, in that haunting voice, a shaft of sunlight will suddenly illuminate her hair. If she sees an unattended microphone, she can’t resist singing into it. Although she is an outspoken and acerbic character, she becomes cowed and demure in the presence of those she admires. The music brings out an emotional side in her that she otherwise tries very hard to hide.
Elsewhere, parts of the film are very thin. The Nashville scenes could come straight out of a TV travel show and aren’t nearly as vivid as those set in Glasgow. A London interlude doesn’t lead anywhere in particular.
Still, Buckley plays Rose-Lynn with such effrontery, abrasiveness and charm that we barely notice how creaky the storytelling often becomes. And it helps, of course, that she can belt out a country song just as well as any of those Nashville legends she so idolises.