Whiskey on the Cornflakes
There's a sort of running gag in Tom Harper's Wild Rose where the lead character gets increasingly hacked off with people confusing country music with country-and-western music. I have to say that I wasn't even aware they were substantively different things, but there you go, this isn't usually my kind of culture. I suspect this is one of those things that you either get or you don't – I remember Billy Connolly's joke that, as country songs are usually concerned with family, religion, tragedy, crime, disability and death, the perfect title for one would be 'My Granny Drowned in the Grotto at Lourdes (Because a Hunchback Pushed Her In)'; also a moment in Every Which Way But Loose where a snotty student tells Clint Eastwood that the country-and-western mentality runs the gamut from 'dull normal to borderline moron' (needless to say, Clint doesn't stand for much of this kind of talk) – but I also know many people love this genre, not just for the songs but for its supposed rawness and honesty. Maybe there is a sense of wallowing in weltschmerz in some aspects of country, what the writer and singer Rich Hall has described as the 'whiskey on the cornflakes' element of it.
Harper's film certainly tries hard to feel gritty and authentic. It opens with main character Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley) getting over a case of the HM Prison blues, as she concludes a stint in the big house for what we eventually learn is a drug-related offence. The country roads take her home to Glasgow, where in her absence her two young children have been standing by their gran (Julie Walters) – obviously, I could keep this up all day if I wanted to, but let's press on with the synopsis. Rose-Lynn just wants to get back to singing on the Glasgow country music scene; she dreams of going to Nashville one day, but small details like her lack of money and the fact she's obliged to wear an electronic tag as part of the terms of her parole cannot help but get in the way of this. Eventually she lands a job as a cleaning lady for an affluent older woman (Sophie Okonedo), who learns of her ambition and, in her own way, tries to help her. But there are hard truths to be faced and choices to be made: just how much is she prepared to sacrifice in pursuit of her dream?
This is a bit of a change of pace for Tom Harper, certainly after his last film, the slightly underwhelming Nu-Hammer sequel The Woman in Black: Angel of Death. That was a perhaps-too-glossy modern spin on Gothic horror, this is a decidedly more gritty and down-to-earth undertaking. Everyone's critical yardstick for Wild Rose seems to be last year's update of A Star is Born, and I can sort of see where they're coming from – they're both musical dramas about aspiration and the demands it makes of a person, both films feature eye-catching central performances, and they both feature big musical numbers amongst their most memorable moments, although they're really more like dramas with music than actual proper musicals.
This is certainly the case with Wild Rose, which features Buckley extensively on the soundtrack but only includes a handful of scenes where she sings on-camera. There's a slightly disingenuous moment where Buckley is given a line where she dismisses Saturday night TV talent shows as being no good as launchpad for a career – disingenuous, because this is exactly how Buckley herself first rose to fame. Needless to say, she can really do the business vocally, while the fact that she can also really act was established last year in Beast. The lead role of this film demands someone who can do both, and Buckley carries it off with aplomb.
However, it takes more than one great performance to make a great movie and I was initially not completely impressed by some aspects of Wild Rose, as it seemed to me to be doing the Breakfast at Tiffany's thing of assuming I was going to be hopelessly charmed by the lead character despite the fact they have major personality and behavioural issues. The film is carefully coy to begin with about just exactly why Rose-Lynn has been in prison, but still makes very clear that – initially at least – she is irresponsible, a neglectful parent, with anger management issues and one finger never far from her self-destruct button. It's relatively easy for me to feel sorry for someone like that, but I'm not going to root for them unless you give me a better reason than that they're a bit of a character and can carry a tune.
The surprising thing about Wild Rose, and the one that elevates the film, is that it works tremendously hard to make you genuinely care for Rose-Lynn, despite all the reasons why you possibly shouldn't. I know some people have criticised this film for lacking comedy or romantic elements, but I think this misses the point: this is a more serious drama than some of the advertising suggests, dealing with moments of genuine emotional pain. It doesn't feature anyone losing control of their bladder on stage or making very bad decisions in a garage, but it is about failing as a person in very serious ways, taking responsibility for that failure, and then trying to make amends. Every uplifting moment of musical beauty or success is earned through heartbreak and disillusionment, generally depicted in a refreshingly unsentimental way. The film also seems to be challenging that usual glib dictum that to succeed, you have to follow your dreams, no matter what the cost – Wild Rose isn't afraid to suggest that doing so may or may not lead to success, but it has a very good chance of turning you into a horrible person to be around.
The film also impresses in its refusal, for the most part, to indulge in fairy tale contrivances and easy answers. There's a curious plot tangent where Rose-Lynn gets a free trip down to London to visit Whispering Bob Harris at the BBC (Whispering Bob's performance is not entirely convincing, which is weird considering he's playing himself), but it doesn't really advance the story, while the film isn't afraid to defy expectations elsewhere, either. There are unexpected touches of subtlety, too, especially in the relationship between Rose-Lynn and her employer/sponsor – just who exactly is exploiting who, here? Only at the very end does the film cheat a bit, concluding with a moment of unqualified joy that we're left to imagine our own context for (a trick which at least borders on sentimentality, if you ask me).
Nevertheless, this is a highly engaging, solidly made film, built around three extremely good performances – we're at the point now where you kind of assume Julie Walters is always going to be excellent (needless to say, she is), and it's always nice to be reminded of Sophie Okonedo's ability as an actress – she has the least flashy role of the leads, but finds a lot to do with it. But this is Jessie Buckley's film from beginning to end: she takes you on a journey from chaos into a kind of peace, from thoughtless selfishness to new-found responsibility, and makes you believe every step of the way. The supporting performances, direction, script and songs are all worth seeing (one of the songs was written by Mary Steenbergen, who has apparently reinvented herself as a country music singer-songwriter), but Buckley is the thing you will remember.