A sweet, stirring, and yet refreshingly unsentimental tale of a singer with ambition (and pipes to match), the movie “Wild Rose” is like the anti-”A Star Is Born.”
Set in Glasgow, Scotland, and centering on a young single mother and ex-con who dreams of moving to Nashville to become a country singer, this small, glitz-free drama is a bracing counterpoint to that Oscar winner, which garnered several nominations, including one for its star, Lady Gaga.
My Washington Post colleague Ann Hornaday called that 2018 film “a well-seasoned, handsomely cured slab of showbiz schmaltz.” That line was, deservedly, a compliment. But not everyone has the stomach for such a dish, however savory. “Wild Rose” serves up some of the same ingredients— or at least seems to, at first — but uses a very different recipe.
Much of that difference has to do with the circumstances surrounding its central character, Rose-Lynn Harlan (Jessie Buckley), who, as we first meet her, is just getting out of prison after serving one year on a drug charge. On her release, Rose, as most people call her, moves in with Mom (Julie Walters), who has been taking care of Rose’s two young children (Adam Mitchell and Daisy Littlefield) during her daughter’s incarceration. Given Rose’s passion for American country music — a passion she’s indulged since she was 14 as the front woman for the house band at Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry — the kids are named, appropriately enough, Lyle and Wynonna.
Rose wears white cowboy boots and an American flag T-shirt. On her forearm, she sports a tattoo reading “three chords and the truth,” the famous description of country music coined by songwriter Harlan Howard.
To be sure, Americana is big in certain quarters of the U.K. Glasgow’s Opry is a real place, and there’s a long-running BBC radio program dedicated to the musical genre, hosted by “Whispering” Bob Harris. Harris himself makes a cameo in the film as Rose’s musical mentor. But Rose, who isn’t called “wild” for nothing, takes her love of country to extremes. She’s willing to pursue her dream, even if it means leaving her children while she searches for stardom — solo — in Music City.
That dilemma provides the film’s emotional conflict, which takes place mostly between Rose, who sees her artistic success as benefiting everyone in the long run, and Rose’s mother, who believes that Lyle and Wynonna need their mother more than Rose needs fame and fortune.
Making matters more complicated is the fact that Rose really can sing.
The Irish-born Buckley, who starred in the 2017 thriller “Beast” and who is currently drawing attention in “Chernobyl,” took second prize in the BBC talent show “I’d Do Anything” in 2008. At 29, she has already had a career in stage musicals. As Rose, the actress makes her character’s dilemma palpable: Why should she give up something she’s so good at? On the other hand, is success worth sacrificing a relationship with her children?
That’s the question that so many women artists with children confront — artists of all disciplines — and that fathers rarely do. It’s also a question that so many movies fail to explore as honestly as this one. When Rose meets a benefactor (Sophie Okonedo), a well-off woman who hires Rose as a housekeeper and who is poised to facilitate her trip to Nashville, it seems as if the movie is going to turn into the fairy tale we have seen before.
To its great credit, the movie (directed by Tom Harper, from a script by Nicole Taylor) turns left when you expect it to turn right, taking a route that is less well traveled, yet more plausible.
When Rose does visit Nashville, albeit briefly, the clerk at her motel tells her: “May all your heartbreaks be songs, and may all your songs be hits.” In this case, there’s heartbreak either way Rose turns. In “Wild Rose,” that heartbreak can — and does — become something beautiful. As Whispering Bob puts it, Rose has already got a voice; now she just needs to find something to say with it.
She does, and so does this movie.