During the 90s, there was a period where British independent dramedies were operating on an international level. Films like The Commitments, Billy Elliot, Pride, and The Full Monty were not only becoming hits in the United Kingdom, they were becoming hits in America, topping the box office and earning Oscar nominations to boot, thanks to universal stories and a general sense of fun in story and execution. While the aughts mostly drummed this phenomenon out, there has been a sort of comeback in recent years, thanks to films like Sing Street and Blinded By The Light. However, this most recent iteration of universal U.K. hits has perhaps reached its peak, as it will be hard for many films, if any, to reach the heights of Wild Rose, Tom Harper’s remarkable new film featuring an unparalleled breakout performance by Jessie Buckley.
Rose-Lynn Harlan (Buckley) is a 23-year-old woman trying to find direction in life. She has a dream, that’s for sure: she’s going to leave her hometown of Glasgow behind and head to Nashville, determined to become the next great country singer. However, she lacks the means or opportunity to do so: she’s just gotten out of jail for smuggling heroin, she’s been fired from the Glasgow Grand Ole Opry, and she has two young children she needs to not only feed, but completely reconnect with. Desperate for her daughter to leave her childish dreams behind and become the mother she needs to be, her mother Marion (Julie Walters) sets her up as a cleaning woman for a wealthy local family. However, upon hearing her sing, mother Susannah (Sophie Okonedo) makes it her life’s mission to get Rose-Lynn all the way to the Country Capital of the World.
One of the fundamental missions of films like Wild Rose is to tether the character’s emotions to the audience, so that we feel what she feels, love what she loves, and anguish over her anguishes. And what makes Rose so successful is the innate love it has not only for Rose-Lynn, but for Rose-Lynn’s beloved country music. The film has such an appreciation of the craft, and portrays it in such a amorous way, you can’t help but be swept up in the story of it all. Even if you’re not a country fan (I myself toe the line of loving the honest artists while loathing Stadium Country), you’ll still find yourself tapping your foot and cheering Rose-Lynn on as she makes her trek to Nashville. There are a litany of reasons her passion rings true to the audience. Certainly Rose-Lynn’s explanation that country is just “3 Chords and The Truth” doesn’t hurt, giving a succinct, poignant resonance to the songs’ lyrics. But for my money, I’d say its largest benefactor is director Tom Harper, and the way he chooses to shoot the musical moments. It’s hard to recall in recent memory a musical sequence more loving or honest than when Susannah has Rose-Lynn record an audition tape, and the backlighting takes on a fantastically bright jubilance, letting her inner light permeate every inch of the frame. There are several moments in the film where the lighting appears amateurish or unnaturally dim, but in that one moment, Harper manages to cast all doubts aside in a reflection of pure honesty.
And the film parlays this love of the craft as a means of character analysis, to ingenious effect. Writer Nicole Taylor comments on the current state of the country industry and the so-called “Stadium Country” in characters diminishing Rose-Lynn for her past crimes. “People come to see country singers to forget their troubles! They don’t want to see some criminal!” they tell her, ignoring the fact that the genre was founded by artists like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams were popular because their music was about being so poor and so broken that they resorted to crime. And in one of the film’s key moments, famous DJ Bob Harris gives Rose-Lynn the advice “All that matters is you’ve got a voice and you’ve got something to say. You’ve got the voice. What do you need to say?” Not only does this critique demonstrate why audiences love country music as a whole, it gives us insight into our heroine’s greatest flaw: that she has never actually put in the hard work, in her music or in any aspect of her life. And sure, I would have appreciated a wider look at her quest to put her pain into prose, but so long as the final product is the touching original song “Glasgow,” I’m not sure it’s a major issue. Harper and Taylor utilize a shared love of country music to not only inspire the character, but to emotionally invest the audience with the film itself.
One of the film’s most brilliant insights into character and the story is through the way Harper incorporates the film’s soundtrack, a collection of classic country songs played mostly diegetically over Rose-Lynn’s cassette player. Now, when we hear the songs Rose-Lynn is listening to, they serve a surface level storytelling purpose – they usually reflect her mood in any given scene – “I’m Movin’ On” is played when Rose-Lynn begins to try to make something of herself, and when she first leaves the jail, we hear “Country Girl,” a song about a rough-and-tumble sinning country star. However, Harper’s use of music goes much deeper than that. Whenever Rose-Lynn removes her headphones, we can hear the same song still playing through the speakers – only now, there’s something different. We realize that the person we’ve heard singing is not, in fact, the original artist, but Jessie Buckley. We are hearing these songs as performed by Rose-Lynn, because in her mind, she’s hearing herself singing these songs. It informs both her character and her desires through the simple act of re-recording classics. Furthermore, the film is subconsciously making us associate Rose-Lynn with talent and stardom, thus encouraging us in rooting for her to make it. And in the film’s most riveting sequence, the aforementioned “I’m Movin’ On” scene, the real-world Rose-Lynn begins to sing along to the recording while vacuuming the house, summoning an entire band into existence surrounding her. As she dances around the living room, vacuum in hand and drummers and bassists surrounding her, we get a glimpse at the world as Rose-Lynn sees it: a country paradise where she can live her dream, no matter the world around her. These are small, subtle touches, and yet they are executed flawlessly, and with a real sense of passion. By framing her early on as talented enough, the crux of the film changes from, “Is she talented enough?” to “What’s keeping her from fame?” And through this juxtaposition, the film puts itself in the same category – in fact, as a companion piece – to 2013’s Coen Brother classic Inside Llewyn Davis. It is smart, emotional filmmaking that captures the heart and soul of each and every audience member.
Now, it is a well-worn trope in “star is born” dramas that the protagonist’s successes come at the price of their personal life. And Wild Rose is no exception. However, where it shines in contrast to other films of its kind is the reason her home life is struggling. While films like The Greatest Showman or Walk The Line or Bohemian Rhapsody and so on show the fame stealing the protagonist away from their loving family, here, the music is seen as a kind of escape. Rose-Lynn had two children before the age of 18, and has never put in an honest day’s work in her life. Her struggle is not balancing fame and family – it’s about accepting responsibility. And the film explores these themes richly and wisely. While it is never a question as to whether she loves her kids – one of the quietest moments of the film portrays her weeping over a song about the struggles of the road leading the singer away from her family – we also know from minute one that she is a sh*tty parent. Her first visit upon being released from jail is not to her family, but to her boyfriend for a quickie in the park. Her daughter, for much of the first act, refuses to speak to her. And while we are given cues that Rose-Lynn loves her kids dearly – she remembers each of their favorite foods from before she went to jail, and does her best to stay on top of their school work – she has no regrets over breaking promises to them, and likewise has no control over them when they misbehave. Instead of the traditional “Rise To Fame, Lose The Family” storyline, Wild Rose embraces a far more intriguing “Save The Career, Save The Family” angle.
In following Rose-Lynn’s quest to parenthood, the film does what it can to defy expectations at every opportunity, even when sticking to basic storytelling beats. When Susannah reveals that she’s throwing a party in Rose-Lynn’s honor so she can raise money for Nashville, we as audience members instinctually know that something’s going to keep the party from happening. And when Rose-Lynn accepts a ride home from the husband who has been intently staring at her every time he’s onscreen, we begin to form an idea of where the film’s going to go. And when the film starts going there, the characters even comment on the expectation of the narrative – only to immediately take a hard-left turn in a different direction. And just when things start working out…a whole new issue arises to throw the narrative into question. And while it is an age-old storytelling trope to show someone in show business struggling between the act and her doomed personal life trying to apply makeup while crying (it was recently done brilliantly in I, Tonya), Buckley and Harper sell the scene so damn well, you don’t even mind. However, perhaps the greatest departure from cliché comes in the form of Rose-Lynn’s mother, Marion. I deeply love the way the film shapes Marion not only as a character, but as a voice of reason. Whereas the parental figure in 99% of stories about musicians are antagonistic (“The wrong kid died”), Marion has a much more complicated relationship with Rose-Lynn. She deeply loves her daughter, and supports her dream (we see her giggling with glee over the Bob Harris encounter), but would much rather she give it up if it means she’ll leave the dangerous path towards jail and death behind. Marion’s less interested in “You’ll never hack it as a musician” as she is in “Could you just stop for a little bit so you can get your sh*t together and not f*ck up your kids for life?” This all leads to one of the film’s most emotional moments, a monologue surrounding her life and choices that puts her character in perspective, shapes her relationship with Rose-Lynn, and explores the line between goodness and greatness. It is the heart of poetic cinema. And it drives home another great point: the balance between motherhood and responsibility, and how it is not necessary for a mother to just give up their dreams. One of the most powerful shots in the film comes during the inevitable “giving up” sequence that every Star Is Born film has – while Rose-Lynn is enjoying her time with Wynonna and Lyle, the camera also provides a brief close-up of her tennis shoes. It is the first time in the film we see her abandoning her beloved cowboy boots, and it is a striking metaphor for giving up on one’s dream. It feels decidedly un-Rose-Lynn, and it will catch the audience off-guard – which is precisely the point of Harper’s costuming decision. By portraying Rose-Lynn’s conflict as the act of growing up as opposed to giving up, Wild Rose manages to tell a classic story in a new, exciting way.
In terms of the acting, the entire ensemble is remarkable, but I’d be remiss to lay credit at the feet of anyone other than Buckley. Jessie Buckley gives one of the year’s best performances as Rose-Lynn Harlan, an electric firecracker that marks one of the best debuts I’ve ever seen. Not only does Buckley have a powerful, commanding voice and a sense of stage presence, she manages to convey a litany of emotions every time she’s onscreen. We cheer for her when she succeeds, cringe when she fails, and weep when she’s upset. There is only one word to describe Buckley’s work on this film, and it is “mesmerizing.” I’ve already written about how great Walters is as Marion, but I will once again reiterate that her mix of parental disappointment and emotional nurturing is pitch perfect, and I’m fairly certain she’s the only one who could have pulled off that final monologue. Sophie Okonedo hasn’t really been properly utilized since 2004’s Hotel Rwanda, so I’m pleased to report that she made the most of her supporting turn here, providing the love and support Rose-Lynn needs. And in a pleasantly surprising turn, child stars Daisy Littlefield and Adam Mitchell serve as excellent foils to Buckley, never overplaying their scenes and giving just enough emotional depth to their performances that we cheer for the relationship with their mother. It’s one of those special films with no weak links.
Wild Rose is the best kind of movie. It’s a simple story done well, told effectively and emotionally, and without sacrificing directorial spirit in the process. Tom Harper has made an age-old crowd pleaser here, and more importantly, he has given the world a remarkable Jessie Buckley performance. It’s films like this that remind me of why I like seeing not just to independent cinema, but movies in general. It makes me feel inside and out, and dazzles me with written, directorial, and musical tricks galore. Wild Rose is one of the best films of 2019, and may it enjoy both a long shelf life and inspire the careers of both Harper and Buckley.