At what point does burning ambition have to step aside for the pressing responsibilities of adulthood? Taking to heart Harlan Howard’s “three chords and the truth” analogy, Tom Harper’s Wild Rose tries to pin down exactly when it’s time to give up on your dreams. As it revels in the perils of human desire, this rousing film becomes a lively love letter to the genre of outlaws, as well as to the genuine strife that goes into making it.
After being released from a year in prison, Glasgowegian country music enthusiast Rose-Lynn Harlan (Jessie Buckley) is having trouble reacclimating to her old life. Because her mother (Julie Walters) shielded them from seeing their mom behind bars, Rose-Lynn is having to reacquaint herself with her own children, ages five and eight. But assuming the role of mother is the furthest thing from her mind. Her dreams of stardom had her performing at a local dive bar before she was locked up, but now her court-issued ankle bracelet requires her to be home by sundown. Struggling to make ends meet, she takes up a job as a maid, hoping she’s able to propel herself by virtue of the wealth and class of the family whose house she cleans and to somehow raise enough money to escape her circumstantial baggage and flee away to the birthplace of music she loves so dearly, Nashville, Tennessee.
Riding the wave of well-deserved goodwill from last year’s Beast and the latest HBO smash Chernobyl, Jessie Buckley continues to become even more unassailable as a performer with every role she takes on. As Rose-Lynn, she is able to sell the crippling emotive beats while also displaying the star power necessary to demonstrate her potential for fame. She’s caught up in a vicious cycle, consumed by desire as music becomes both the cause of and release from all of her woes. She may have kicked her drug habit and been deemed sufficiently rehabilitated by the judicial system, but she’s far from over her true addiction. Still, as the viewer, you’re always in her corner. It’s Buckley’s blazing charisma that keeps you rooting for Rose-Lynn to dig herself out of the hole, even as you see her continue to shovel downward.
Nicole Taylor’s (Three Girls, Secret Diary of a Call Girl) patient and poignant script takes its time, slowly allowing its turmoil to properly unfold. Charting its own familiar yet distinct path, Wild Rose is naturalistic to the point that its protagonist’s success feels equally as likely as her failure. The film constantly toys with our expectations of kitchen sink realism, particularly when it peppers in jubilantly active and visually inventive storytelling from director Tom Harper (BBC’s War & Peace, The Woman in Black: Angel of Death) that finds an imaginary band manifesting itself around Rose-Lynn in order to play along with the song that’s pounding in her head. In this regard, it fully encapsulates both the joy and pain of chasing your dreams, without either over-romanticizing or delving into unnecessary melodrama. It’s a true celebration of the fantastical while also planted firmly in a recognizable reality.
In a film as infatuated with the power of music as much as this, the songs are instrumental, and Wild Rose is able to lovingly curate a compilation of tunes both old and new that finds a heartfelt slice of Americana deep in the heart of Glasgow. Jessie Buckley’s imposing voice led to her rise to stardom on British talent search I’d Do Anything, and it continues to shine here as she makes country standards like “I’m Moving On” and “Angel from Montgomery” entirely her own. All of the film’s musical performances were recorded live, adding to the sense of joyous intensity that culminates in the warm lead track “Glasgow (No Place Like Home)” penned by Mary Steenburgen (yes, that Mary Steenburgen), filled with plenty of fitting references to The Wizard of Oz. The soundtrack is even endorsed by important figures in the music business who are playing themselves throughout the film, such as Kacey Musgraves, Ashley McBryde and Bob Harris.
With heart and soul to spare, Wild Rose is an inspired take on the true cost of ambition. Tom Harper and Nicole Taylor have a subtle enough touch to make sure the narrative stays grounded, while Jessie Buckley brings enough raw energy keeps us all on our toes. It’s a winning combination that brings the story of Rose-Lynn Harlan to life in ways that continuously dazzle and enthrall. We feel the passion and the pain, and then get to just for ourselves whether the struggle is worth the possibility of the spotlight.