It’s a standard-issue plot: A young, single, Scottish mother of two, recently paroled from prison, harbors dreams of country-music stardom in Nashville. Don’t be fooled. Wild Rose is anything but the same old underdog story. And chances are you’ll fall fast and hard for breakout star Jessie Buckley. This classically trained Irish singer and actress was a runner-up on a BBC singing competition and won roles in film (Beast) and TV (War and Peace, HBO’s Chernobyl). She’s a skyrocketing talent — and the full range of her gifts are on display here.
As 23-year-old Rose-Lynn Harlan, an untamable bundle of impulsive energy, Buckley lets it rip. The ex-con is a comet slowed in her flight by a court-ordered ankle bracelet, an interfering mother (Julie Walters), and self-destructive tendencies with both drugs and men. Working from a script by Nicole Taylor, director Tom Harper makes a few by-the-numbers stops with Rose-Lynn getting it on with boyfriend Elliot (James Harkness) and showing little aptitude for mothering her children, who are five and eight years old. Fortunately, the script takes an intriguing twist by focusing not on the men in Rose-Lynn’s screwed-up life, but on the women who challenge and provoke her. Walters is reliably superb as Marion, the mother who’s tired of taking shit. It’s Marion who pushes Rose into a housekeeping job for Susannah (the outstanding Sophie Okonedo), a free-spirited Brit whose Scot husband (Jamie Sives) has put her and their two young kids in a pumpkin shell that looks like a mansion. It’s Susannah and the kids who hear Rose singing around the house and decide she’s star material.
They’re right. The movie knows it. And you’ll know it, too. Harper directs a terrific scene of Rose-Lynn singing as she cleans house, backed by an imaginary band scattered around the premises.. Buckley can sing country like a honky-tonk angel (she also co-wrote most of the songs) and her stage presence is electric. She’s a hellraiser on stage and off, preferring not to pour herself a whiskey when she can swill it right out of the bottle. Rose-Lynn’s voice is as emphatic as her strut in white cowboy boots and fringed leather jacket. But it’s the way Buckley digs into the bruised soul of her character that makes her incandescent.
Rose-Lynn’s country goal seems out of reach until Susannah sparks a crowd-funding project to send her to Nashville and the film sets us up for the usual rags to riches finale. That things don’t happen that way is a tribute to the creative team behind Wild Rose. If country is, as Rose-Lynn says, “three chords and the truth,” she is slow to accept the harsh realities about herself and incorporate them into her music. But when she does, sneaking onto an empty stage at Nashville’s fabled Ryman Auditorium (former home to the Grand Ole Opry) to sing a capella, prepare for an emotional wipeout.