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Great country songs are often made from the most basic musical elements — a few chords, a hummable melody and chorus, maybe a key change — but somehow those humble components can be worked into something transcendent with the alchemical addition of skillful playing, energetic showmanship, ace songwriting and sincerity.
Fittingly, the British comedy-drama Wild Rose pulls off the same kind of trick as a movie. It posits a classic setup — a young rebel (in this case a young Glaswegian woman fresh out of prison, played by the incandescent Jessie Buckley) with a raw streak of talent (singing country music) and then tests how badly she wants to succeed (will she leave her young children for a chance to go to Nashville?). Out of these familiar, predictable elements director Tom Harper and screenwriter Nicole Taylor have fashioned something entirely delightful, fresh as a Scottish summer evening. The film stays in “key,” to extend the musical metaphor, with a narrational circle of fifths that creates certain emotional lows and highs and hits them accordingly, but even that mild predictability makes it more lovable, and catchy as a burr on a long-haired dog. Certain to win hearts in its home market and acquired by Neon at Toronto, this could represent a breakout, toe-tapping hit.
Sent to the big house for a year for throwing a bag of heroin over a fence at another prison, 23-year-old Rose-Lynn Harlan (Buckley) is reissued with her fringed white leather jacket and matching cowboy boots, and freed on parole, albeit with an anklet that enforces curfew every night. After a quick stop en route for some al fresco sex with her beau Elliot (James Harkness), Rose-Lynn arrives at her mother’s house in Priesthill, a working-class area on Glasgow’s south side that’s certainly seldom used as film location.
Her mother Marion (Julie Walters, allowed a rare chance to show off her strong and considerable dramatic range), a bakery employee, has been looking after Rose-Lynn’s two under-10 kids while she’s been away. The children are suspicious and shy of the prodigal mother, who doesn’t seem to know quite how to connect with them. In any case, Rose-Lynn is more worked up about getting back her old gig singing with a band at a local country music club, but with her abrasive interpersonal skills, the court-ordered ankle bracelet and her tendency to throw right hooks, nix that.
Marion suggests Lynn-Anne take over an arthritis-ridden friend’s job as a daily housekeeper for Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), a cheery, bohemian English transplant who’s married to a self-made Scotsman (Jamie Sives), has two sweet young children of her own, a house big enough that a housekeeper is required and plenty of time on her hands. After hearing Rose-Lynn singing while working (a charming dreamlike sequence where the backing band are stationed around the mansion’s rooms while Rose-Lynn cleans), the children and Susannah become her newest, most passionate fans.
Putting a smart twist on what viewers, especially British ones, might expect when it comes to cross-class relations, Rose-Lynn and Susannah become genuine friends. Susannah has edges and a mild case of self-absorption, but she’s a very rare example of a middle-class character in a British film dominated by working-class people who is not a villain, a snob or a stereotyped twit. Certainly, the fact that she’s played by Okonedo enhances her likability, and the actor’s mixed race (never remarked on once by the other characters) perhaps changes the complex algebra of class at play here. But as the film goes on, it becomes clear that it’s about, among other things, non-sexual relationships between women. Rose-Lynn’s occasional trysts with Elliot seem to mean almost nothing to her. It’s her friendship with Susannah and tempestuous relationship with her mother that drive the plot forward. If you apply the Bechdel test, this is a film that passes with flying colors.
Nevertheless, above all else, thematically the story is about good old-fashioned self-discovery, a lost lamb finding herself, but once again the journey doesn’t zig and zag exactly how you’d expect. She must find herself morally but also musically, and the two objectives are almost the same thing. While imbued with deep respect for country music and its history (the soundtrack, curated by composer-supervisor Jack Arnold, is a cracker), Wild Rose is tuned into the contradictions of a Glaswegian wanting to break into country, a music that’s very much about place and cultural identity.
Thoughtful as these extra dimensions are, and enhancements to what is a refreshingly subtle work, most people won’t absorb them consciously because they’ll be too dazzled by Buckley making a blazing bid for big-time fame. She had already caught some attention with her mesmeric, nuanced performances in Beast last year, and on the recent BBC adaptation of War and Peace that Harper directed. Irish viewers will remember her as a girl from Kerry who came second in a TV singing contest. As a musician, she’s terrific, but as an actress she’s even better, with ceaselessly mobile features like a changeable Northern sky.
Production: An Entertainment One, BFI, Creative Scotland presentation of a Fable Pictures Production
Cast: Jessie Buckley, Sophie Okonedo, James Harkness, Jamie Sives, Julie Walters, Bob Harris
Director: Tom Harper
Screenwriter: Nicole Taylor
Producer: Faye Ward
Executive producers: Natascha Wharton, Leslie Finlay, Alison Owen, Xavier Marchand, Polly Stokes
Director of photography: George Steel
Production designer: Lucy Spink
Costume designer: Anna Robbins
Editor: Mark Eckersley
Music/music supervisor: Jack Arnold
Casting: Kahleen Crawford
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
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