There is a sub-sub-genre of film that I have an extreme, long-standing weakness for: If your movie is about working-class Brits living in a tough part of town and struggling to express themselves artistically, I am almost certainly going to like it. In Tom Harper’s Wild Rose, Rose-Lynn Harlan (played by Jessie Buckley) is a 20-something Glaswegian who was recently released from prison, is struggling to raise two young children, and dreams of only one thing: singing country music and becoming a Nashville star. Just as with Billy Elliot and his ballet dreams, or the embittered miner musicians of Brassed Off, or the grumpy cobblers of Kinky Boots, I was enraptured from the get-go.
Crucial to any of these films is a lead performance that can capture both the shine of the hero’s aspirations and the grind of day-to-day life. Buckley, an Irish stage and TV actor who has just begun her transition into movies, supercharges Wild Rose with electrifying purpose, adding flair and substance to the screenwriter Nicole Taylor’s routine but solid script about a diamond in the rough. I wasn’t rooting for Rose-Lynn to succeed merely because that’s what these stories require; I was also just desperate to watch her sing as many times as possible.
Harper is a journeyman filmmaker whose screen credits include the Brit horror knockoff The Woman in Black 2 and the BBC adaptation of War & Peace (also starring Buckley). He presents Glasgow as flat and gray, all the better to make the redheaded Buckley pop as she returns to the city after a year in jail. The first chunk of the film tracks her departing the prison in high spirits, hooking up with an old boyfriend, then picking up her two children from their disapproving grandmother, Marion (Julie Walters). She picks a fight at the local bar where she used to perform, gets a job as a cleaning lady for the well-off Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), and even has a close call with the cops over her 7 p.m. curfew. Almost 40 minutes pass, and viewers hear multiple times about how Rose-Lynn has been singing since she was 14, before we see her take the stage for the first time.
All that buildup pays off, though. When Rose-Lynn finally storms back into her local bar and sings Chris Stapleton’s “Outlaw State of Mind,” the movie opens up. Buckley bubbles with charisma without losing a grip on her character, evincing a woman who’s only really herself when she’s singing. One song should be enough to convince the audience that Rose-Lynn is worthy of Nashville superstardom, but like any good hard-bitten British melodrama, Wild Rose has a healthy dose of reality to weigh her down. Rose-Lynn’s dreams clash with the difficulty of her family life, the lingering effects of her criminal past, and her inability to stick with anything long enough to make a career out of it. She’s raw, boiling talent—which is part of why the relatively unknown Buckley (who also played a crucial role in this year’s TV hit Chernobyl) is so well cast.
Walters, who played the encouraging but flinty dance teacher in Billy Elliot, is an old hand at these sorts of films, and she infuses Marion with just the right amount of love and despair for her daughter’s wild ways. As a wealthy woman who genuinely adores Rose-Lynn’s singing but who can be painfully patronizing about it, Okonedo has an even narrower path to tread, but the Oscar-nominated actor shows her subtle knack for getting quickly to the heart of even a minor supporting character like this one.
The real delight of Wild Rose, though, is how delicately it finds a narrative that rewards Rose-Lynn’s obvious skill without succumbing to easy tropes about how natural talent and fame go hand in hand. That Rose-Lynn is an onstage force is easy to tell from the second she picks up a microphone, but Taylor makes this film less about her gift than about the maturity she needs to take it beyond the local Glasgow pubs. As a result, the film’s melancholy but uplifting closing notes land that much more powerfully.