If the Jeopardy answer is “Three chords and the truth,” the question must be, “What is country music?” Rose-Lynn Harlan, the hard-luck young heroine of the musical melodrama Wild Rose, believes this so strongly she has the phrase tattooed on her arm. A freewheeling saloon singer in a backwater honky-tonk, Rose dreams of country stardom in Nashville—not an unusual dream, but dang near impossible for Rose-Lynn, who is stuck in her native Glasgow, Scotland, half a world away.
Directed by Tom Harper from an original script by Nicole Taylor, Wild Rose begins on the day Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley) is released from prison after serving a one-year sentence for bad behavior. After a pit stop at her boyfriend’s house for a quick tumble, she heads home to the housing project where her disapproving mum Marion (Julie Walters) has been raising Rose-Lynn’s two estranged little kids (named Wynonna and Lyle) in her absence.
Bounced out of her former singing gig at the neighborhood country saloon and forced by the fed-up Marion to finally take responsibility for the children she hardly knows, Rose-Lynn has to accept a day job cleaning house for classy, upscale Susannah (Sophie Okonedo). Turns out the easily distracted Rose-Lynn is miserable at motherhood, and an unreliable employee. (As soon as Susannah leaves the house, Rose-Lynn starts sampling her cosmetics, her liquor and her stash—for which there are no consequences whatsoever. The filmmakers just seem to think it’s a cute interlude.)
All Rose-Lynn cares about is the music, and pursuing her obsession of getting to Nashville by any means necessary. Since she doesn’t write her own songs, or even play an instrument, her entire country persona is borrowed from other artists and their music. (Songs by John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and Wynona Judd, among others, are covered by Buckley on the soundtrack.)
And yet she’s only a bit daunted when somebody suggests to her that the only way to achieve her dream is to start telling her own story. Ultimately, the narrative works through its familiar changes to circle back to that tattoo: how much truth (especially about herself) can Rose handle?
Taylor’s script asks us to suspend a great deal of disbelief, and not always willingly. Buckley is a powerful singer with a gutsy stage demeanor, but it’s not entirely plausible that Rose-Lynn inspires such ardent devotion in everyone on the evidence of a single song or demo. (Okay, maybe her mother—except that in this story, her Mum is her harshest critic.) It’s a bit much when she persuades a staid barrister to go to court in hopes of getting her probation ankle bracelet removed by taking him to see her act at the saloon, where he starts rocking out.
When Rose-Lynn gives Susannah a few country music recommendations, Susannah becomes smitten with the genre literally overnight. (“I can’t stop listening!” she gushes.) She’s also smitten with Rose-Lynn herself, and instantly devotes all of her energy and resources to the would-be star’s career. At a climactic performance, even those with whom Rose-Lynn has most severely burned her bridges turn out to cheer her on. And while Taylor’s plot rolls out a familiar refrain of rift, reversal and resolution, the storytelling plateaus don’t always feel earned.
Rose-Lynn’s oblivious self-absorption is wearying at times. Still, the movie often entertains with cheeky attitude, occasional flights of musical fantasy and droll dialogue (when you can penetrate the characters’ thick Scottish dialects). When Susannah’s young twins appear out of the blue, the startled Rose-Lynn gasps, “It’s like The Shining!” As she dances around Susannah’s house with the vacuum, singing away, imaginary back-up musicians start appearing around every corner, adding their licks.
Those who are already fans of the genre will get the most out of Wild Rose, as uncluttered and predictable as a country lament.
**1/2 (our of four)
With Jessie Buckley, Julie Walters and Sophie Okonedo. Written by Nicole Taylor. Directed by Tom Harper. A Neon release. Rated R. 101 minutes.