Jessie Buckley is a combustible powder keg as ex-con country singer Rose-Lynn in Tom Harper’s Wild Rose. At the drop of a cowboy hat — or the switch-on of a microphone, more literally — the Glaswegian will break through her already infectious, knowing smile to tear down the walls that attempt to contain her, always locked and loaded with a very Scottish “fuck off” to whomever stands in her way. Buckley’s is the kind of performance that, for a small audience, will position her in the top tier of newcomers, teetering on the line between critical darling and megawatt star. The most reductive analogy for Buckley’s standing after this very “indie” movie hits the arthouse circuit is that of a Short Term 12 (2013)-era Brie Larson, shortly before her Oscar win for Room (2015) and long before leading a blockbuster tentpole in this year’s Captain Marvel.
The talent necessary for that sort of trajectory is present in Buckley, and one could make a good case here for the actor-as-auteur argument that’s bandied about with canonized old-Hollywood stars and even some established modern ones. If Wild Rose contained a more adventurous narrative than someone overcoming self-destruction to self-actualize, perhaps it wouldn’t be so easy to characterize Tom Harper’s film as truly belonging to Buckley. That’s not to say that an actor-centered film theory isn’t a cogent one, or that it is only deployed for “lesser” products — it’s been used to assess many great films and performers — but ever since Wild Rose’s premiere on the festival circuit last fall, the predominant word has been that Buckley completely owns it.
Harper is working from a script by Nicole Taylor, here penning her first theatrical feature after many years working in British television. The director does a more than capable job in realizing the screenwriter’s depiction of lower-middle-class life in her home turf of Glasgow, Scotland. Harper effectively employs an enveloping widescreen frame and an all-too-occasional head-spinning musicality, but the text is nevertheless conventional. Covering the time from Rose-Lynn’s prison release up to the very point of (possible) stardom, the film isn’t a whirlwind rise-fall-rise narrative like the recent biopics Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) and Rocketman (2019). Instead, the wholly fictional Rose is culled from disparate parts of rote indies, here cohering here into a light-on-its-feet crowd-pleaser with some lopsided, manipulative story beats.
To wit, a synopsis can read like a parody of lesser Sundance Film Festival fare. Following her release from a 12-month stretch in prison for heroin smuggling, Rose-Lynn returns to the Glasgow projects where her mother (an always sparkling Julie Walters, even when in exasperated-mom mode) has been caring for the children she left behind. An ankle monitoring bracelet prevents the country-and-western singer — “Agh, it’s just ‘country,’” as she often corrects the normies around her — from returning to her decade-long singing gig at a local honky-tonk. That doesn’t stop her from shirking her responsibilities toward her children, forgetting a promised dinner out after day-drinking for hours in a neighborhood bar. She is then forced to take a house-cleaning job with an affluent family, the matriarch of which, Susanna (Sophie Okonedo), takes a special liking to Rose-Lynn because of her rough-hewn charm and impressive musical talents.
After Susanna rebuffs her employee’s request for a loan so she can attempt to fulfill a life-long wish of making in it Music City, USA (Nashville, for the unacquainted), she offers a connection to a legendary BBC disc jockey, Bob Harris (playing himself). It’s at this point that Susanna urges Rose-Lynn to record a demo video for a song previously belted out in a fantasy-tinged number in which an imaginary full band backs the singer as she vacuums her employer’s front hall. This latter sequence illustrates how Rose sparkles in realizing passion through cinematic techniques. Alternating between a shot from the front-facing camera of a laptop and a swooning, swirling widescreen close-up of Rose-Lynn, the a capella number morphs into a fulsome, orchestra-backed moment of realized expression.
What follows, however, are the film’s wonkiest and most unbelievable movements, as Rose-Lynn boards a train to meet with Harris at BBC headquarters in London. After drunkenly losing the handbag seemingly containing her entire livelihood, she’s swept into the world of country radio and all but guaranteed a big break when the DJ god prompts her to write her own music. The moment references the singer’s motto and tattoo of “three chords and the truth,” a definition of sorts for her preferred genre, but it reeks of self-promotion, painting the film’s production company as a charitable dream factory instead of the corporate conglomeration that it actually is.
Both of those descriptions can be true, but Wild Rose isn’t interested in the latter — just as it takes that aforementioned credo to its achy-breaky heart without investigating the nature of artistic expression and its entanglements with public presentation and identity. Even if one carefully reads between the lines of the great performance and rollicking music — some covers and some originals (co-written by Oscar-winning actor Mary Steenbergen, of all people) — there’s not much nuanced meaning, just surface-level emotion. As a portrait of self-destruction, Taylor’s film is much more successful, arguably due to Buckley’s incendiary turn as Rose-Lynn, who is constantly taking one step forward and two back. She makes the incredible credible, including a fateful decision in the final act that could manipulate even the most immovable viewers into believing that there really is no place like home.