Wild Rose (2018)

Recently released after a 12 month hitch in prison, young, working-class Scottish woman Rose-Lynn Harlan (Jessie Buckley) harbors dreams of hitting Nashville and making it as a country singer, but must balance them against her responsibilities towards her two under-10 children, and contend with the enormous hurdles in front of her presented by her class and her country.

The universe is trying to tell me something this week. Less than 24 hours after I published this screed about class issues in the arts and its wider implications, I was blindsided by director Tom Harper’s heartfelt and often harrowing film. I went in expecting something along the Billy Elliot (2000)/ The Full Monty (1997) spectrum, something a bit hard-bitten, but essentially uplifting — arts-as-meritocracy, the low-born dreamer/ ingénue breaking through the glass ceiling by sheer dint of talent and charm. What I got was a considerably more complex and unsentimental film, yet one that still hits its emotional beats with serious impact, by turns devastating and uplifting.

A Country Girl Can Survive

Wild Rose is, in essence, a character piece, and its success hinges on its central figure, brilliantly performed by Jessie Buckley, Beast (2017), and conceived by screenwriter Nicole Taylor, Three Girls (2017). Rose-Lynn is a complex figure. She’s no saint. She drinks, she swears, she takes advantage of people and, crucially to the film’s central dramatic tension, she puts herself and her career ahead of her children, Lyle (Adam Mitchell) and Wynonna (Daisy Littlefield), who have been in the care of her no-nonsense mother, Marion (Julie Walters), while Rose-Lynn was inside. Marion wants her wild child to pull her head in and do right by her kids but dreams of stardom at the Grand Ole’ Opry beckon.

Glasgow, Scotland, where the film is set, has its own Opry, where Rose has been a local star since her mid-teens, her singing talent compensating for her hard-drinking, hard-fighting ways — although, as she accurately notes, Johnny Cash was a convicted criminal, too. It’s an odd little cultural outgrowth, a hatted-and-booted country music colony in the grey Scottish city, its appearance at odds with its location. But appearances and assumptions are core to Wild Rose; everyone we meet is harboring secret hurts, difficult upbringings, and sometimes, bigger hearts than they at first let on. Even Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), the wealthy woman that Rose-Lynn becomes a cleaning lady for, reveals a past living in a rat-infested flat in one confessional moment. In terms of plot, Susannah represents an economic opportunity for Rose-Lynn — her connections and wealth can catapult our heroine several rungs up the ladder. Thematically, she shades the potentially homogenous approach to class issues with welcome complexity; everyone is from somewhere. Everyone struggles.

But class is at the heart of Wild Rose, even more so than music. Indeed, with its focus on country music, the film is an astute but emotional look at how class is mediated and communicated through art. The contrast of Western finger-picking against dour Glasgow skies seems incongruous at first, and then you realize how much Country music is about just trying to get through the working day, keep body and soul together, and do right by your family, and it all makes sense. And really, how far from the Scottish brogue is the Nashville twang, anyway?

A Glaswegian gal walks the line …

Still, the signifiers of a working-class background are a heavy chain to bear — Susannah, despite her confession, presents as upper class, her impoverished past entirely hidden by her current social façade. For her part, Rose-Lee dreams of a more romantic manifestation of raw-knuckle poverty, she laments that she should have been born in America and conceals her curfew-enforcing ankle bracelet beneath white cowgirl boots. Her challenge is to reconcile both her artistic aspirations and her working-class heritage, to let one inform the other, the voice speak for the heart. That this tension is maintained almost to the film’s final frame is simply astonishing.

That final frame isn’t a happy ending, though — what Wild Rose promises is not the fulfillment of dreams, but the continuance of life; the understanding that the struggle will go on, but can be made bearable with temperance, forbearance, love, art, and music — everything good and fine in the world. And we get all this in the story of a troubled Scottish girl who wants to sing country songs. The result is not just a good film, but one of the best of the year.

5 / 5 – Don’t Miss!

Reviewed by Travis Johnson

Wild Rose is released through Universal Pictures Australia