There is no way I couldn’t enjoy Wild Rose. I love traditional country music and I’m particularly fond of a group of female country singers, many of whom are referenced in this film. I’m also a big fan of the classic country biopics, Coalminer’s Daughter (1980, the Loretta Lynn story) and Sweet Dreams (US 1985, the Patsy Cline story). Add to that, Jessie Buckley has a great voice and a real screen presence and I’m sold. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t several questions to ponder and to wonder whether an even better (but less commercial) film is buried in there somewhere.
The Irish actor-singer Jessie Buckley plays Rose-Lynn Harlan, a woman in her late 20s but with the dreams (and selfishness) of a younger woman. As the narrative begins she is being released from prison with an electronic tag. She returns to her mother Marion (Julie Walters) and her two young children, a boy of five and a girl of eight. Soon, Marion will force Rose out into her own council flat with the two kids, pushing her to take responsibility. Trapped by the tag and a night-time curfew, she has to rebuild her life and grapple with her dream of going to Nashville. Her possible ‘way out’ is a meeting with an unlikely mentor and supporter, Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), who can open doors usually closed to the likes of Rose. She will eventually make use of one of those doors opening, but this isn’t a conventional ‘star is born’ story.
Wild Rose was a big hit at the Glasgow Film Festival earlier this year and the film celebrates aspects of Glasgow culture. But also in some ways perpetuates a trend in Scottish film culture, following on from Sunshine on Leith, in having an English director (Tom Harper who handles the material well) and two English lead players with the central character played by an Irish woman. The script is by Nicole Taylor, who is a Scottish writer, best known for a range of well-received TV scripts. This gives it enough authenticity and credibility but does it need the starpower of Julie Walters and Sophie Okonedo to get made? Like most UK projects of this kind the production was dependent on public funding – Creative Scotland, BFI and Film 4. I’m imagining the casting decisions aimed at overseas distribution, especially in North America. Julie Walters is very good, dialling down some of her familiar excessive moves. I’m not qualified to judge her accent but it seemed OK to me and Sophie Okonedo is great as usual but I wonder if their presence creates expectations about the narrative?
In much the same way, the songs for Rose to sing are carefully chosen. In the promotional material certain songs are picked out. ‘Country Girl’ originally by Scottish band Primal Scream and ‘Angel from Montgomery’ by John Prine (made famous by Bonnie Raitt) are two titles not usually associated with country music. Perhaps the distributors worried about the disdain for country shown by many in the UK? I wonder if the promotion in the US will pick out other songs? Rose actually sings songs by Wynonna Judd, Patty Griffin and Trisha Yearwood which might be more germane.
I’m being picky because I’m so invested in the music. The house band recruited for the film are excellent and they play mainly with traditional instruments. Glasgow is the focus point for the meeting of Irish and Scottish traditional music with North American associated music culture every year in the Transatlantic Sessions and Celtic Connections so there is an authenticity in both the playing and the Glasgow cultural roots. Because I don’t watch ‘reality TV’, I was unaware that Jessie Buckley had made a big impact on the show that sought to find a new singer for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals. She can certainly sing and I was convinced that she could make it singing most forms of popular music. She also has the acting ability to make Rose-Lynn believable. This all means that Wild Rose is very enjoyable and entertaining. But it could be something else as well. I was reminded of the Irish film Once (2007) which told a simple story but explored a real interest in music (and won an Oscar).
I got to watch a free preview of this on my fast-expiring Picturehouse membership at Bradford, and happy to say I did not have to pay for it too as it did rather set my teeth on edge. Not being invested in the music my take on the story was that it was another exploration of a working class character with a modicum of talent enthusing a gaggle of impressionable and docile middle class bystanders with their raw and untamed ambition. Thus both the Sophie Okonedo and her surely more worldly-wise kids were completely taken in, although her husband was a little more clear-sighted.
Pity for Okonedo, a fine and subtle actor, that she got to play someone quite dim here, but not as embarrassing as the twin cameos from Whispering Bob Harris and his producer who got to up the cheese factor considerably.
I wouldn’t disagree with any part of your analysis apart from the ‘modicum of talent’ bit. But I notice that you don’t mention the family drama which is arguably as important as the music drama – and the music.
The family drama was sound enough, and even quite touching in one mother/daughter scene late on. What let it down was the tacked-on final scene where Rose-Lynn seems to have tailored her ambitions to her circumstances and is singing a new song, partly written, I believe, by Mary Steenburgen, to a packed and very appreciative auditorium including people she has let down badly along her rambling way.
What these films, or their producers, do not appreciate is that simply upping the feelgood factor of the ending often merely undercuts any drama that we have seen before.
But what do I know ? My favourite film of last week was ‘Steel Country’ which had a bunch of largely British actors including Andrew Scott, currently hot from Fleabag, impersonating the underclass of small town Ohio for some reason. I do not recall a happy ending but it all seemed more authentic. Peter Bradshaw from the Guardian gave it one star.
I agree with your review Roy. I enjoy quite a lot of country music and as far as I’m concerned Jessie Buckley can do no wrong as either actor or singer: she performs everything with intelligence and has a very real, raw star quality. She was excellent in ‘Beast’ and her performance in this is equally good, carrying an otherwise very enjoyable but less impressive film. I partly agree though with John about the class issue and the scenes set outside Rose’s immediate Glasgow world, which I found clichéd and cringey. Sophie Okenado was wasted in a two dimensional role as an unbelievable middle class saviour but she did perform it well as she could. I seem to remember her character worked her way up from a poorer background, so maybe an opportunity was lost there to develop more class parallels between them. It was a role that reminded me of Maxine Peake’s equally unconvincing middle class husband in ‘Funny Cow’ and I note that Nicole Taylor scripted BBC’s ‘Three Girls’ (drama about the Rochdale grooming gang victims), where she was on surer ground..
For me, far the most compelling aspect of the story was the core relationship between Rose and her mother and I agree Julie Walters was great too. It saved the film from the predictable ‘star-is-born-and-makes-it-big-time’ narrative that we usually get, and which we might have feared from some of the clichéd feel-good trailer-bait shots early on like punching the air / singing and shaking her bum while hoovering. Their clashes were the most convincing points of tension in the film and wrung me out emotionally. Yes, the film centred women and their strength, solidarity and resourcefulness but in my view didn’t do enough to challenge the stereotype of the ‘bad single mother’. Some people I discussed it afterwards just couldn’t get over Rose’s behaviour in the first half of the film, blaming her entirely for her predicament. So for me, the most significant character was the absent one: the father of Rose’s kids. Where was he? Why hadn’t he faced up to his responsibilities? Why is it always women who are left with the dilemma of career ambitions or children? Those are the questions we really should be asking in these ‘bad single mother’ narratives , and I suspect more might have done if the father been written in with even a brief appearance.
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To be fair, Once‘s Oscar was for best song. I thought Wild Rose had a stronger narrative, especially as it avoided (thank god) the temptation of the big “making it in Nashville” ending. By the way, the Nashville sequence reminded me of River Phoenix’s last film, which belied the received wisdom that all of Peter Bogdanovich’s post-Last Picture Show/Paper Moon films were turkeys.
I think we all agree on the film’s weak points. I’d just like to emphasise that a key point, not really taken up enough in the narrative, is the connection between the songs that Rose sings and the personal family situation she finds herself in. She sings ‘Peace in This House’ during her tour of the Ryman Auditorium. The song written by Angela Kaset and Doug Gill was made famous by Wynonna Judd and the lyrics are ironic in relation to Rose’s situation. When Rose sings she misses out the opening lines. See the lyrics as written here. The relationship between lyrics and the narrative might be expected to be prominent in a musical.