Irish actress Jessie Buckley delivers the biggest star making performance of the year in director Tom Harper’s electrifying crowd pleaser Wild Rose. As budding 23 year old country singer Rose-Lynn Harlan, Buckley establishes a commanding presence that captivates, enthralls, and moves. On one hand, Wild Rose is a realistically framed, but unabashed crowd pleaser about following one’s dreams at any cost. It’s also the kind of work built around a single bravura performance that people who see it won’t forget for a very long time.
Defiant and hard living Rose-Lynn has just been released from a year long prison sentence. Due to restrictions placed on her by the courts and her parole officer, Rose-Lynn has to move back in with her concerned and increasingly vexed mother (Julie Walters) in Glasgow, who has been taking care of the irresponsible and irrepressible young woman’s two young children, aged 8 and 5. Before heading to prison, Rose-Lynn was passionately trying to make her mark as a country singer-songwriter, but she doesn’t want to stop at being a big fish in Scotland’s devoted, but relatively small music scene. She knows her talents and what they’re worth – desperately trying to get some radio airplay in London and eventually head across the pond to Nashville – but she’s also her own worst enemy. Her talent is immense, her attitude is cocky (genuinely believing that she’s only one of two people in the entirety of the UK who appreciates and understands country music), and her aims to be successful are single-minded and all encompassing, a combination that might give Rose-Lynn everything she wanted professionally, but could also further push away her family and those who care about the young woman’s well being.
Director Tom Harper, has worked with Buckley in the past (on a television miniseries adaptation of War and Peace), but he seems to know that Wild Rose is at its best when he gets out of the way of the music, Buckley’s performance, and screenwriter Nicole Taylor’s perceptive, witty, and fully lived in screenplay. There are a few dazzling visual moments – especially when music is involved directly – but for the most part, Harper makes Wild Rose into a stripped down reflection of the characters’ lives and the country scene in Glasgow. Rose-Lynn is often espousing how the beauty of country music is simply made up of “three chords and the truth,” and Harper seems to subscribe to the same philosophy. Harper dispenses with most of the flashy stuff off the top to reflect Rose-Lynn’s jubilance at getting her freedom back, only returning to it during the film’s well-earned, show-stopping finale.
For her part, Taylor (a Glasgow native and country music aficionado) gives her cast plenty to work with in her lived-in, multi-layered screenplay. In addition to creating a fabulous, hard charging, almost anti-heroic main character in Rose-Lynn, Taylor creates a deceptively complex web of human interactions. The relationship Rose-Lynn has with her mother – expertly played by Walters – and children is painfully realistic. Mom has had more than enough of Rose-Lynn’s inability to hold down a stable job, refrain from partying, or spend time with her own kids, and their battles are unflinching in their candour and honesty. Mom might be a bit harsh on her adult daughter, but Rose-Lynn can be a harsh person. The kids also want little to do with their mother; not because grandma has brainwashed them in any way, but because Rose-Lynn has done everything possible in their young lives to perpetually let them down and lower their expectations.
Similarly, Wild Rose integrates a fascinating sub-plot that speaks to the nature of privilege and Rose-Lynn’s unflappable pride by setting the main character up to be a housekeeper for a well-to-do high society woman (Sophie Okonedo, in a surprisingly meaty role) who wants to help the singer achieve her dreams. The characters in Wild Rose are just as vibrant and complicated as the world they inhabit, acting as a rich storytelling parallel to the music Rose-Lynn wants to perform. The plot is simple, and the tune is familiar, but the details, meaning, and people involved in creating it are anything but cliches. It’s a well honed story that dabbles in some established tropes, but it’s told through characters audiences haven’t seen before. Wild Rose is a film about music (all of which is rather good, much of it penned by Taylor with Buckley sometimes assisting) that makes people care about where these songs are coming from and why they exist in the first place.
But Wild Rose unquestionably belongs to Buckley, who’s a goddamned force of nature. She made a large impression last festival with her darker, subtler performance in Beast, and earlier this year on HBO’s surprise smash-hit series Chernobyl, but Wild Rose is the type of film that should rightfully propel this woman into the stratosphere. Much like the character she portrays in Wild Rose, Buckley has the “it factor” in spades. Whether Rose-Lynn is singing, dancing, drinking, daydreaming, fighting, or scraping, Buckley is incapable of hitting a false note, properly allowing the viewer to love or hate the character from moment to moment. The film itself is great, but her work in it is nothing short of explosive; the kind of game changing performance that needs to be seen to be believed.
Wild Rose opens exclusively at Cineplex Varsity and VIP Cinemas in Toronto on Friday, June 21, 2019. It expands to Vancouver and Montreal on Friday, July 5 and additional Canadian cities on July 12.
Check out the trailer for Wild Rose:
Portions of this review were previously published as part of our coverage of the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. It has been expanded and revised for the film’s theatrical release.