Jessie Buckley rocks the stage in a country-fied music drama that treads too-familiar territory outside its Scottish stage.
About 70 minutes into Wild Rose, its title character (Jessie Buckley), sits around a kitchen table. A birthday cake livens up the dark and its candles sway, and as her son, daughter, and mother (Julie Walters) watch her blow out the flames, her son turns to her. “Did you make a wish?” he asks. She doesn’t respond for a moment, but when she does, it’s surprisingly tender. “You can have mine,” she says.
It’s a quiet touch in a movie of many. This film, however, is more of a mosaic than its arcs allow it to be, and it’s one that doesn’t emboss its finer details. Director Tom Harper and writer Nicole Taylor have a deep respect for ol’ Rose-Lynn. They sway through her contradictions. They love her. They’re also never mean to her, but for a script that sways between character study and well-trod territory, it can’t quite figure out just where its heroine went wrong. Maybe she went wrong with, well… heroin.
You see, Rose-Lynn smuggled the drug for cash and did jail time for it, and when she gets out at the beginning of the picture, she doesn’t set her sights on her two kids. She just wants to leave Glasgow and become a country star. Hell, the only reason she gets a job is at her mom’s insistence, and the only reason the character does so is so Wild Rose‘s promises of authenticity can unfold over a clean backdrop of music drama tropes. Yep, it’s one of those movies where most beats fall into the protagonist’s lap.
This job, as it turns out, is as a cleaning lady for the wealthy Susannah (Sophie Okonedo). When her kids catch the would-be star singing to herself on the job, they’re inextricably taken with her talent. Luckily, Susannah’s bevy of connections lands her a gig with BBC Radio 2. At first, this feels like a rise towards something bigger, but then it becomes clear that it’s really the first of Wild Rose’s several detours.
For a script that sways between character study and well-trod territory, it can’t quite figure out just where its heroine went wrong.
Some are bigger than the last; some feel downright puny in comparison. At its best, Taylor understands how arrhythmic the journey at hand can be, aiming to mix realism with a more palatable arc. It’s frustrating, then, for the movie to work better in stretches than as a whole. The writer has a bad habit of throwing the biggest roadblocks and redemptions at Rose-Lynn. A few are trivial, a kick to the shins. Then there are some on which the plot hinge, somewhere Wild Rose fails to understand just how passive its leading lady is.
By consciously tracing itself from start to finish, the world just sort of happens to the heroine. And while this may seem refreshing at first, it shows itself to be hypocritical: with such a concerted effort to establish Rose-Lynn’s life, they lose track of her own agency. She’s not so much a result of her own prowess as she is a result of everyone around her. Could this make for something more holistic? Of course. But this drama says time and time again that Rose-Lynn’s personal issues are her fault and rarely anyone else’s.
This is most notable in how the movie lays poverty over her like a filter to make the picture more alluring while lacking the awareness to make use of its themes regarding class and wealth. Others feel like an offshoot of this—her children exist for no little narrative reason. Wild Rose isn’t propulsively about her when one factors in the countless characters that bail her out, and Harper doesn’t fully realize that.
At least isn’t offensive, and it isn’t anodyne, either. There are several nice flourishes here, mostly regarding her quest for identity. It’s not just the switch between her thick, Scottish accent and crooning voice, either. It’s how much she—and everyone around her—romanticizes American as seen from the outside in. “I’m an American. I should have been born in America,” she declares at one point, and frankly, it can be hard to argue with her.
The hardest thing to argue with, though, is Buckley herself. Her work here is far from her previous (and much timider) roles, but it isn’t the bombast that says the most. It’s her eyes, her face, the quivering of her chin when her dream seems to fade farther away. One can even believe that Rose-Lynn acts the way she does because she’s been inundated with these stories for so long. It’s Buckley that knows the most here. The movie, on the other hand, can be something of a missed opportunity.
Wild Rose is currently available in select theaters.