UK (2018) Dir. Tom Harper
There is nothing wrong with having dreams. For most of us, they are what drive us to better ourselves, fulfil our potential in our chosen endeavours, or simply bring a bit of cheer to our lives. Some may achieve these goals some may not; the worst thing is not making an effort at all to make these dreams come true.
Aspiring country singer Rose-Lynn Harlan (Jessie Buckley) dreams of going to Nashville but is trapped living in Glasgow. Fresh off a 12-month prison sentence for drug running, single mother Rose-Lynn struggles to return to normal life with her two kids Lyle (Adam Mitchell) and Winona (Daisy Littlefeld) and her mother Marion (Julie Walters), who insists Rose-Lynn grows up and starts being a mother to her children.
Having been replaced as house singer at the local Grand Ole’ Opry, Rose-Lynn gets a job as a cleaner for well-to-do Susannah (Sophie Okonedo). When Susannah’s kids hear Rose-Lynn singing one day they are impressed enough to tell their mother, and becoming overnight country music fans, encourage Rose-Lynn to chase her dream. But Rose-Lynn still has her parental commitments to consider, creating a dilemma between her desires and her family.
Wild Rose is a beguiling meshing of two distinctly different worlds you’d probably not think pair off – the working class social drama of Ken Loach, and the rhinestone, cowboy boots fantasy world of country music. The former might encourage fleeting comparisons to 1991’s classic The Commitments, relocating the grass roots musical aspiration from Ireland to Scotland, but without the tongue-in-cheek humour.
Directed by Tom Harper, whose work has mostly been in gritty TV dramas, it is odd that this is one facet which is absent from this film, despite tackling social issues like post-prison rehabilitation and being a single parent. Regular profanity aside, Harper veers closer towards a crowd pleaser than a warts and all drama, which is no bad thing but does mean the path taken is sometimes a predictable one.
Opening with Rose-Lynn leaving prison in a giddy mood, her first port of call is to an old boyfriend for a physical reunion then it is off to Marion’s to see her children, getting a lukewarm reaction. Lyle talks to himself a lot whilst Winona barely speaks, looking at her mother like she is an alien, a by-product of Marion refusing to take them to see Rose-Lynn in prison.
Unfortunately, Rose-Lynn hasn’t done much growing up during her stay at Her Majesty’s pleasure, assuming she can just dump the kids on Marion and rock up at the Glasgow Grand Ole’ Opry and resume her singing career. Manager Jackie (Janey Godley) puts paid to that, barring Rose-Lynn from the venue when she attacks her male replacement, leading to Rose-Lynn finding work with Susannah.
Just as things begin to look up for Rose-Lynn with Susannah’s support, which includes her pulling some well-connected strings and getting Rose-Lynn a trip to meet the legendary radio DJ Whispering Bob Harris in London – a journey blighted by her bag being stolen – things with the family steadily head in the opposite direction.
Marion is framed as a Killjoy trying to oppress her daughter’s ambition, showing none of her excitement for wanting to be a singer and pouring cold water on her plans. However much this might be accurate, the truth is more to do with Marion wanting Rose-Lynn to be there for her children instead of palming them off onto other people so she can live the dream.
A tension seldom eases between them no matter how calm a front Marion puts on, the breaking point is always one instant away. Rose-Lynn tries but the kids give her little quarter, as a year without their mother at such a young age is monumental to them, thus the reluctance to let her in to their lives again is a barrier for both to bring down. Unfortunately, it is a case of “one step forward, two steps back” and Marion is not happy with always being the one to pick up the pieces.
When one considers how many country songs that are written about domestic disputes, it would seem like Rose-Lynn would have a whole album worth of songs from her life situation. Even Bob Harris suggests Rose-Lynn should write her own material but she doesn’t feel she can (guess how that turns out), but for screenwriter Nicole Taylor it’s a fertile plot she has to juggle with the positive aspect of Rose-Lynn’s musical yearnings.
There is a distinct shift in mood and tone towards the upbeat when dealing with the progress Rose-Lynn makes with Susannah’s help, which is also reflected in the aesthetic. Susannah’s expensive house is shot with maximum light and every shot sparkles with life and energy; back at Rose-Lynn’s or Marion’s council homes, everything is darker, pale and cold, a juxtaposition that carries over between the Glasgow Ole’ Opry and the real thing in (spoiler) Nashville.
Country music fans will have fun with the various classic songs that appear in the film, many sung by Jessie Buckley herself, as well as spotting cameos by two female country singers, Kacey Musgraves and Ashley McBryde. The playlist has been well curated to fit the narrative when necessary, comprising of up-tempo numbers and heartfelt laments, with occasional live performances with a full band.
Jessie Buckley is actually Irish but her Scottish accent is spot on, if marginally more credible than Julie Waters’ accent but she is a national treasure so she can get away with it. As Rose-Lynn, Buckley is compellingly raw in portraying a young woman torn between responsibility and ambition with the maturity for neither, but undertakes a personal journey to earn the right for both.
Whether Wild Rose will create new country music fans is debatable but it is likely to make some new Jessie Buckley fans, whilst satisfying as a good natured, if often conventional, tale of self-discovery, complete with a feel good finale in these times of austerity.