'Wild Rose' is an unapologetically sentimental hymn to Glasgow and to country music that will melt the hardest of hearts – even of those who find country music irredeemably corny. 'There's a reason country is really popular in Scotland,' the film's Glaswegian screenwriter Nicole Taylor told Mark Kermode. 'It's like a suppository for the emotionally constipated!'
Taylor, who wrote the searing script for 'Three Girls', the Bafta-winning BBC television dramatisation of the Rochdale sex grooming scandal, crafted her country music fable a decade ago. It took the commitment of producer Faye Ward ('Suffragette', 'Stan and Ollie') to set the project in motion, bringing on board the dazzling rising Irish star Jessie Buckley in the title role of Rose-Lynn, and Julie Walters, in a mercifully understated performance and impeccable Glasgow accent, as her scolding, loving mother Marion. Directed by Tom Harper ('Peaky Blinders', 'This is England', 'War and Peace') 'Wild Rose', like 'Three Girls', also centres around three women.
We first meet Rose-Lynn stumbling out of prison in white leather-fringed jacket with matching cowgirl boots pulled over an electronic tag. She's out on bail, the mother of two children, her daughter born when Rose was only 17. At 23, she is still not grown-up. Her single-minded desire, honed whilst in prison for a drugs offence, is to get to Nashville to be a country singer. In the meantime, her mother Marion has been caring for the children and working in a bakery. She wants Rose-Lynn to face up to her responsibilities, though she knows the cost of giving up on one's dreams. It is their tempestuous mother-daughter relationship full of hope, scorn and encouragement that fuels the film.
The third woman is Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), a well-heeled married woman with two children and a self-made Glaswegian husband. Susannah hires Rose as a cleaner for her elegant house, far from the Priesthill housing scheme where Rose-Lynn's mother lives. Susannah is bowled over by Rose's singing and sets out to use her contacts to help her get the break she needs, including crowd-sourcing funds to send Rose to Nashville.
There is also a sweet cameo role for legendary BBC broadcaster 'Whispering' Bob Harris, who meets Rose-Lynn in a London recording studio after an eventful train ride. Rose-Lynn, who slugs whisky from Susannah's drinks' cabinet, hasn't told her employer that she is a jailbird and has family responsibilities tying her to Glasgow. The mansion she cleans becomes a space for some lovely part-fantasy musical sequences. It is her friendship with Susannah and complicated relationship with her mother that drive the plot forward.
For at least the first half of the film, the filmmakers seduce us into thinking that we are to have the satisfaction of an inspirational girl-makes-good fable. Yet despite an apparently thin plot we are being offered something rather different and more bittersweet than might be expected. The film is about self-discovery, but the journey does not proceed quite as we expect. As the film progresses we see our hero change before our eyes and begin to want what she couldn't have known, or wanted, at the start. That's what is so special about the script and direction, matched by Buckley's brilliant acting and musical talent.
Her bravura performance is a perfect match for the perceptive script. The sense that music can give voice to otherwise inexpressible feelings and conflicts is at the very heart of Taylor's script and Buckley's performance. Pushy, in-your-face, and a real pain in the neck much of the time, Rose-Lynn, despite the gallous front, is also very vulnerable and unsure of herself. Taylor gets under the skin of her characters with a script that is full of salty, chirpy humour and rhythms that are unmistakably Glaswegian. 'Where are ye goin' all dressed up like a fish supper?' says her wee boy as she heads off for the Grand Ole Opry, Glasgow's Nashville stand-in where line-dancing, country music and all things American reign, but she is given the boot from her job because of her stint in prison. 'Johnny Cash was a criminal' is her parting shot.
Buckley is just as comfortable performing with a great country band – featuring the likes of Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham – as she is rolling up her sleeves to clear the mess in her home, in a deeply affecting scene. Rose-Lynn does get to Nashville, though not quite as planned, and there is the obligatory 'discovery' scene where, during a tour of the legendary home of the Grand Ole Opry, she slips onstage and sings a cappella. A resident fiddler who is packing up to go home hears her and accompanies her. It's just ravishing and we are now primed for a perfect star-is-born ending. But that's not quite what happens – the film confounds our expectations, edging right up to the anticipated clichéd happy ending only to swerve away at the very last minute.
In some ways, the film parallels its main actor's own trajectory. As a teenager she was runner-up in an Andrew Lloyd Webber talent show. Undaunted, she went on to train at RADA and become the acclaimed actor she now is, receiving accolades for BBC Television's 'War and Peace' and 'The Woman in White' and for her debut movie 'Beast', for which she was nominated for a Rising Star Bafta and winner of Most Promising Newcomer at the British Independent Film Awards 2018.
Buckley is a tremendous musician and has a fabulous voice. She and screenwriter Taylor co-wrote six of the film's most powerful songs, prompting Taylor to realise that 'a well-structured country song has a lot in common with a well-structured screenplay'. This insight, together with country music being all about place and identity, is built into the fabric of 'Wild Rose'.
Production designer Lucy Spink and director of photography George Steel
deftly balance the dreamlike quality of Rose-Lynn's imagined world with the down-to-earth grittiness and edginess of Glasgow, with its often leaden skies; while the soundtrack, curated by composer-supervisor Jack Arnold, is an absolute stunner, punctuating the story with music and songs that always feel just right.
I defy any Glaswegian, indeed anyone, not to have shiny eyes when Rose-Lynn belts out the film's closing song, 'Glasgow, No Place Like Home', written by Oscar-winning singer Mary Steenburger – a stunning rendering of a gorgeous heart-swelling song. Fabulous.