Every now and then there comes a film like Wild Rose that’s just what you need: something life-affirming, something with just the right balance of reality and fantasy, something with a big ol’ glug of Nashville warbling. Yep, Wild Rose had it all, and I loved it. Inevitable comparisons to A Star is Born are not advised: this is an entirely different film altogether, bringing together the bittersweet truth of life in working-class Britain with the unshakeable power of following your dreams. Screening at both Toronto and London Film Festivals this year, Tom Harper’s latest feature is funny, wry, sharp and abundant in talent – a hidden gem among hundreds of movies seeking Academy praise.
Director: Tom Harper
Release Date: October 16, 2018 (London Film Festival)
Bracing myself for an Andrea Arnold-style gut-punch of a film, or at least the cinematic equivalent of a stern talking to à la Ken Loach, I was pleasantly surprised by how uplifting Wild Rose turned out to be. It told the story of Rose-Lynne Harlan (Jessie Buckley), a young Glaswegian woman fresh out of prison, who dreams of making it big as a country singer despite her bleak prospects back home. Her voice is second to none, and as a performer Buckley is flawless, fleshing out a sympathetic, complex character from Nicole Taylor’s script.
When Rose-Lynne finds a job as a cleaner for a wealthy local family, she also finds an unlikely aide in her employer, Susannah (the brilliant Sophie Okonedo.) Through this sudden exposure to wealth and contacts, and more importantly, affirmation, Rose-Lynn is able to finally start believing that she will make it to Nashville. But despite her dreams, there are obstacles standing in the way. From the minute she’s tagged (humorously) and released on probation, her two young children, eight and five years old respectively, are present: the film paints a convincing picture of a woman struggling to maintain the balance between her responsibilities and her wild dreams. Much like Bria Vinaite’s Halley in The Florida Project, this loving but troubled mother has some issues of her own to iron out throughout the course of 101 minutes.
I often found myself in a bit of a conundrum about the situation: I wanted to believe that many of her choices to abandon her children were wrong, but I also really couldn’t help but support her ambition and desire to follow her dreams. She is, after all, just another dreamer – isn’t she entitled to follow her passions? What Rose-Lynne seems to do is explore whether she can be true to herself while also dealing with the curveballs life has thrown at her. Though her talent is exceptional, the story could be universal, and to me, that adds to the appeal.
The film does set up some element of fantasy – the contrasts between dynamic, neon-crazy Nashville and humble council estates in Glasgow, even between Susannah’s wealthy, enclosed house and Rose-Lynne’s front terrace shared with neighbors. Comparing these vastly different worlds brought to light the differences between them, which was a powerful technique to show the extent of Rose-Lynne’s ability to dream. The small group of friends and family in her life serve to both raise her hopes and bring her down to earth, something she needs to learn to take in equal measure.
Julie Walters plays longsuffering mother Marion, who has taken responsibility for her grandchildren during Rose-Lynne’s year behind bars. To me, Walters always seems to anchor a film, and this brought to mind her memorable performance in Billy Elliot. In eighteen years she hasn’t changed, and the way she was able to play a grandmother who adored her grandchildren was convincing and heartfelt, right on par with the tone of the film. I really liked the relationship between her and Rose-Lynne: although it was often strained and the straight-talking Marion went to battle against her capricious daughter, as the story progressed, the two become more understanding of one another and warm to each other again.
If I do have any points to criticise, it would be that we didn’t see enough of a motivation for Rose-Lynne’s extraordinary passion for country music (as she emphatically points out – “it’s just country! not Western!”) I can understand that children have dreams and the film spells out that she’s been performing as a regular fixture in Glasgow’s only dedicated country bar since the age of 14, but maybe it’s just that she’s not grown out of the idea. I noted, too, that it’s certainly kind of Susannah to show belief in Rose-Lynne, but why? Is she out of touch, lonely? There is some way of explanation given later, but it seems unusual to begin with.
It does appear to be the kind of rags-to-riches story you might hope for, and I found myself wondering once or twice when exactly something bad was going to happen to undo all the good fortune. But aside from a few issues, there was a believable, occasionally unpredictable narrative arc, and Rose-Lynne’s character made a successful transition from childish single mother to a thoughtful, caring woman who puts others’ needs before her own.
Just like Christine in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird last year, and countless other young, hedonistic dreamers, Rose-Lynne realizes that her roots go deeper than she thinks, and this revelation ultimately sparks some of her best work. The film seems to be driving home the message that growing up is about realizing and accepting who you are and where you are: although the grass always seems greener elsewhere, sometimes where you are is just fine. It could have even done with shaving off the final scene: just prior to this, there’s a lovely moment between Rose-Lynne and her mother that would have made a great ending in itself. But no matter. For a while it made me forget all about film festivals, and awards, and crowd-pleasing: it’s a film that says “everyone is unique, everyone has something to offer the world”, and to me, that’s worth more than many accolades.