My reticence had nothing to do with the movie. It sounded delightful: A young woman from Glasgow wants to be a country singer and encounters obstacles along the way. I know that particular inspirational film template, I like good music, and it seemed promising. But my inbox brims over every day with pitches for delightful-sounding films, and there’s only so much time to watch movies. So this one almost got moved to the pile reserved for the regrettably passed-over.
I’m not sure what got me to take a second look, but I’m sure glad I did. Wild Rose, directed by Tom Harper from a screenplay by Nicole Taylor, is a bewitching film. Plenty of genre films get by on fulfilling the audience’s expectations, hitting all the expected story beats at the right time. But Wild Rose manages to improve upon genre conventions by taking the unexpected route at every turn, without ever sacrificing that satisfaction you get from a good story well told.
And much of that satisfaction comes from watching its star. Buckley plays Rose-Lynn Harlan, age 23, and when we first meet her, she’s in prison, about to be released after a year behind bars for attempted drug smuggling. She insists she was duped. It’s clear she’s had a bit of a chaotic life to this point. Her two young children, both born before her 18th birthday, have been living with her mother (Julie Walters); she’s lost her job at the small but hopping copy of the Grand Ole Opry downtown; she is not exactly a fan of things like routine and structure and rules. She’ll be wearing an ankle bracelet that tracks her upon release.
And she’s also a smashingly great country singer, an unusual sight in Glasgow. Since she was 14, she’s fronted the band at the faux-Opry, and anyone can hear that the pipes on her are grand. Rose-Lynn dreams of making a break for Nashville and seeing if she can be a star.
But she’s got kids, and responsibilities, and no money, and the only job she can land is as a housemaid at the home of a wealthy woman named Susannah (Sophie Okonedo) and her family. Plus, the ankle bracelet means she can’t be away from home after 7 pm — not a great setup for an aspiring singer.
Susannah and Rose-Lynn strike up a friendship, and Susannah starts to fall in love with the idea of helping Rose-Lynn reach her goals. But there’s more chaos in Rose-Lynn’s life than Susannah bargained for, and more chaos in Rose-Lynn’s heart than she knows what to do with. You sort of think you know what’s going to happen from there on, but part of what makes Wild Rose so special is its gentle undermining of our expectations, and even of Rose-Lynn’s.
But the other thing that makes Wild Rose so special — its secret sauce, its magic dust — is Buckley, who’s all red hair and laughter and a wide smile that extends into her eyes. She’s a live wire from the get-go, an actress with a difficult role to pull off. Rose-Lynn is likable but exasperating, an irresponsible whirling dervish who can’t seem to see how far over the edge she’s teetering. You want to party with her and shake her and dance to her music all at once.
And in Wild Rose, she’s got to sing, too. There are fascinating stories about the movie’s songs, one of which was written by actress Mary Steenburgen (who’s not in the movie) after a freak accident, and several of which were co-written by screenwriter Taylor and Buckley. But it’s really Buckley’s performance that sells this idea of a Scottish working-class girl besotted with American country music and all that goes along with it — “it’s three chords and the truth,” she tells Susannah, and shows her that phrase tattooed on her forearms.
We’re a while into the movie before we see her really let a musical performance rip; after getting the ankle bracelet removed, she heads straight to the Glasgow Opry, dragging her lawyer along, jumps onto the stage, rips the mic from the middle-aged guy singing with her band, and lights into a cover of Chris Stapleton’s “Outlaw State of Mind,” while her lawyer sits with his head in his hands at the bar. Head thrown back, mouth wide open, she howls and sings and you just want to dance.
That performance was the moment I sat up straight and thought, “Who is this person?” I hadn’t seen her, most likely because I’m American, and prior to Wild Rose she was most well known for placing second on the BBC TV talent show I’d Do Anything in 2008, and for landing a role that same year in the West End production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music.
She’s had plenty of roles between then and Wild Rose, and her Oscar-nominated role in The Lost Daughter. If you’re not a habitual BBC watcher or an inveterate London theatergoer, you might still have seen her in Chernobyl or I’m Thinking of Ending Things or the fourth season of Fargo.
But Buckley’s greatest gifts are evidenced in her ability to make us love her characters. In the hands of a less effervescent and soulful actress, Rose-Lynn could have come off as just a narcissistic egomaniac who can’t see past the end of her nose. Rewatching the film recently, I realized that Buckley’s turn as a young mother and scholar struggling with motherhood in The Lost Daughter is just another shade of her role in Wild Rose. They’re both women with dreams and pasts that haunt them, and with impossible choices in front of them, specifically small children who depend on them. Navigating that kind of role without turning off the audience to your character seems almost impossible; Buckley has done it twice.
And yet, Wild Rose will always hold a special place in my heart when I think of her work. The moment you get to recognize that the performer you’re watching isn’t just good, but marvelous, is a stirring one, no matter how late to the game you might be in retrospect. And the film itself makes for a marvelous evening, a tribute to great performers, to humble beginnings, to home, and to the power of a well-crafted story, poured through a generational talent.