Another star is born in this music-driven drama, with Jessie Buckley putting in a powerful performance as an aspiring country singer.
Beneath her shock of red hair, Americana-themed clothing and fringed white leather jacket, a string of words adorns Rose-Lynn Harlan's (Jessie Buckley) arm. Her tattoo hails back to her real-life namesake, veteran US songwriter Harlan Howard, who coined an eloquent and evocative phrase to explain country music. "Three chords and the truth" isn't just the definition of a great song in the genre, however. It's the mantra that Rose-Lynn lives by in Wild Rose — and an apt way to describe the film itself. A music-driven movie in the same vein as A Star Is Born, this rousing picture plays plenty of familiar notes. But it also pairs them with such a rich and resonant spring of honesty that the screen lights up like an emotional symphony.
Rose-Lynn believes in country music. She listens to it, croons it, loves it and is firmly convinced that it's her gateway to a better future. Feeling as if she was born in the wrong part of the world, the spirited Glaswegian has visions of Nashville in her eyes, as well as a melodic voice that could take her there. Alas, the twenty-something has just been released from a year-long prison sentence, and has two children that she had when she was still a child herself. Her ankle monitor and daily curfew are hardly conducive to chasing star-studded dreams, or for getting her singing job back at Scotland's version of the Grand Ole Oprey. Nor is her concerned mother Marion (Julie Walters), who wants her to do the right thing by her kids, or the daily cleaning gig for the wealthy Susannah (Sophie Okonedo) that Rose-Lynn needs in order to prove that she can be responsible.
More than once throughout Wild Rose, its wayward songstress is asked if she writes her own songs — if she's belting out her own truth, or borrowing someone else's. While the script by first-time feature writer Nicole Taylor takes Rose-Lynn down a recognisable path that's part kitchen-sink drama, part stars-in-their-eyes quest for fame, this recurring question is a savvy touch in a film that's all about being true to yourself. That's the reality at the heart of many of the aching ballads that country music is known for; these songs aren't just about love, sorrow, longing, affairs of the heart and everyday problems, but about discovering, understanding and accepting one's place in the world. Indeed, more than simply charting Rose-Lynn's efforts to shake off her troubled life and warble her way to success, Wild Rose follows a lost young soul discovering who she really is one heartfelt tune and performance at a time.
With that in mind, perhaps the film could've been called A Person Is Born. Actually it shouldn't because that's an awful title, but the underlying idea remains valid. While director Tom Harper (TV's War & Peace) has the misfortune of unfurling Wild Rose in A Star Is Born's celebrated slipstream, his is a different movie. If the Lady Gaga vehicle was a case of watching both fantasies and tragedies come true, this is a minutiae-filled chronicle of life lived in the shadow of a dream. Narrative details aside, Wild Rose's many differences are evident just from looking at it, with cinematographer George Steel (another War & Peace alumni) giving every frame a quiet, gritty, gloss-free sheen. The movie also boasts moments of expressive, subjective beauty, conveyed in intimate close-ups of Buckley's radiant face, red-lit scenes that channel her inner fire and the striking sight of her taking to the stage — although there's no mistaking that they're the exception, not the rule. No one is being swept off their feet by a rockstar, getting picked up in limousines, playing huge festivals and releasing pop songs about butts here.
Of course, were Buckley to croon a peppy tune about attractive derrieres as Lady Gaga did, there's no doubt that she'd similarly do a stellar job. It'd be easy to call the actor a revelation, except that she's been consistently fantastic across her evolving screen career to date, including in TV series War & Peace, Taboo and Chernobyl, as well as the excellent 2018 crime drama Beast. It's fitting, too, that her off-screen story actually began in a not-too-dissimilar fashion to Wild Rose's charismatic, cheeky protagonist. Just over a decade ago, Buckley unleashed her pipes on British competitive TV show I'll Do Anything, singing her way not only to a second-place spot, but into acting studies. The classes paid off, as she demonstrates in a series of disarmingly intimate scenes with both Walters and Okonedo. Her vocal talents pay dividends as well, including in the moving finale. But like the woman she's playing, there's a spark to Buckley that's infectious, inimitable and irrepressible. The title Wild Rose, conjuring up visions of sprawling, messy, rebellious splendour, proves pitch-perfect for a plethora of reasons.