Life is notoriously short and overfull of what we need to do to make a living; as Wordsworth observed, “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.” We may envy people who get to do what they love – or better, cheer them on, even if it’s only in two-hour bites in a cinema, and especially if their stories involve overcoming some adversity to get there. It’s a common enough trope that a movie about a performing artist rising from obscurity through talent and determination needs some special spark to set it apart from the pack that came before. While there’s nothing notably original about its narrative, English director Tom Harper’s new film Wild Rose catches instant fire from its leading lady, Jessie Buckley.
I suspect I’m not alone in coping with the abovementioned over-busyness of life in part by arbitrarily excising large chunks of things of popular interest from my field of view, and one of those areas of deliberate uninterest is TV talent-search shows like American Idol, The Voice and Dancing with the Stars. Tens of millions of people follow these programs avidly, and I wish them joy of it. I figure that when these shows generate any truly great “finds,” they’ll filter their way upwards into other media where I’ll cross their paths. Thus it was that I had never heard of Jessie Buckley before. But now I’ve had to make a little room for her in my mental files. She’s freaking amazing, and makes Wild Rose something special.
In 2008, the Irish-born Buckley came in second on a BBC vocal talent show called I’d Do Anything, the hitherto-unknown winner of which was to be cast as Nancy in a West End revival of Oliver! As is customary with such programs, the prize was conferred based on audience vote, but three of the five judges preferred Buckley over the winner. One of those three was Andrew Lloyd Webber, and following the conclusion of I’d Do Anything, he began opening some doors for her in the London stage world. By year’s end she had been cast as Anne in a Trevor Nunn production of A Little Night Music.
Then Buckley did a really smart thing: Instead of immediately pursuing more musical roles, she enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art to hone her acting skills. By the time she graduated in 2013, she was getting cast to play Shakespeare heroines who don’t sing: Miranda at the Globe, Perdita by Kenneth Branagh. Her turn as Marya Bolkonskaya in the 2016 BBC version of War and Peace attracted broader notice, and she’s one of the stars of this year’s HBO hit miniseries Chernobyl.
So I’m a little late to this party, but the joy of discovery is worth it. Not only does Buckley have extraordinary pipes, from a technical standpoint, but she also wields her breath, timbre, phrasing and body language expertly to put across the emotion and the storytelling in a song. Happily, that top-shelf acting training manifests superbly when she’s not singing as well. When you’re cast as a character whose adversarial mother is played by the great Julie Walters, taking the laurels as the best part of the movie is no easy challenge. If enough people see this low-budget import film, Jessie Buckley should become a household name even among us non-talent-show-watchers.
Her character, Rose-Lynn Harlan, is a working-class 23-year-old unwed mother of two from Glasgow who’s obsessed with American country music. We meet her on her last morning of a one-year prison sentence for a drug-related offense. Hiding her tracker ankle bracelet under a pair of white cowboy boots, she struts off first to visit her boyfriend (James Harkness) for a quickie, and then to be reunited with eight-year-old Wynonna (Daisy Littlefield) and five-year-old Lyle (Adam Mitchell). The kids have bonded with their Granny Marion (Walters), and the gulf between them and their mother ranges from awkward to heartbreaking.
Rose-Lynn, who has been singing in a Glasgow country music club since the age of 14, dreams endlessly of going to Nashville. Weary of being used as a place to park the children while Rose-Lynn sings and parties, Marion disapproves of her ambitions and wants her to get a “real job.” After a row with the male singer who has taken over her former gig gets her tossed out of the club, Rose-Lynn has no recourse but to accept a position as a cleaning woman. Her simpatico employer Susannah (Sophie Okonedo) becomes a quick convert to the joys of country, pulls strings to introduce Rose-Lynn to iconic radio host Bob Harris (playing himself), comes up with a scheme to raise money to get her to Nashville. That’s the point where Wild Rose jumps out of the groove of the typical rags-to-riches story, and we must avoid entering Spoilerland.
Buckley burns across the screen like a meteor, but her character is in many ways unlikable. Rose-Lynn is immature, self-absorbed, unreflective, clueless about parenting and, until a brush with disaster in the third reel, mostly unmotivated to learn how. It’s her sheer talent as a singer that makes us root for her – to grow up a little, as much as to attain her artistic goals. Having such a complex and highly flawed protagonist helps to set Wild Rose apart from most of its antecedents.
The film’s biggest flaw is how underwritten the Granny role is. Julie Walters’ formidable comedic talents aren’t tapped at all here, and it isn’t until near the end that we get an inkling that Marion once had ambitions of her own before settling for a lifetime job in a bakery while being a devoted, if unencouraging, single mother to Rose-Lynn. Maybe the audience is meant to be as surprised as Rose-Lynn is when she finally begins to think about other people’s needs and priorities. But I came away wanting to know more of Marion’s story. I hope Rose-Lynn went on to write an angsty country song about it.
– Frances Marion Platt