Billy Elliot in cowboy boots? Wild Rose is better than that

Wild Rose features Jessie Buckley as an aspiring country-music star who’s determined to shrug off Glasgow for fame and glory in Nashville. Alex Ramon, part of our LFF Critics Mentorship Programme, explains how it adds some new wrinkles to a well-worn format.

25 October 2018

By Alex Ramon

Wild Rose (2018)

“Fuck! Country night…” complained Johnny Flynn’s character to Jessie Buckley’s, as the pair arrived at a club for the evening in last year’s indie thriller Beast. But Buckley’s latest heroine, Rose-Lynn, would have lapped it up.

The protagonist of Wild Rose is, in fact, an aspiring country singer – a Glaswegian single mum who’s just out of jail but still dreaming of heading to Nashville and making it big.

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With a lot of attitude, a great voice and a tattoo bearing Harlan Howard’s famous definition of country music – “Three chords and the truth” – Rose-Lynn has been singing regularly at Glasgow’s very own Grand Ole Opry since she was 14.

Her put-upon mum, Marion (Julie Walters), who’s been patiently looking after Rose-Lynn’s young son and daughter during her incarceration, thinks it’s more than time that her daughter gave up her aspirations and faced reality. But when Rose-Lynn gets a job cleaning for a sympathetic woman named Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), who takes a shine to her and is eager to help her out, it begins to look like her dream might be within reach after all.

Anchored by an astute script by Nicole Taylor, director Tom Harper’s appealing film taps into a familiar tradition of feel-good working-class British cinema, from Brassed Off (1995) to The Full Monty (1997) and, in particular, Billy Elliot (2000).

As in last year’s Funny Cow, though, the important difference here is that it’s a woman who’s centre stage. Buckley’s generous, unabashed performance connects the Brit grit of Margi Clarke with real-life US country heroines that Sissy Spacek and Jessica Lange played memorably in 1980s country-music chronicles The Coal Miner’s Daughter and Sweet Dreams.

Singing with verve and conviction throughout (a scene in which Rose-Lynn returns to the Glasgow Opry to perform is the film’s exhilarating, rowdy mid-point highlight), Buckley’s turn is strikingly different from her work in Beast.

In that film, her character was a hard-to-read Jersey girl who’s challenged – and maybe liberated – by her relationship with a man who might be a monster. The forthright Rose-Lynn might head out of jail straight for a quickie with her casual boyfriend (an underused James Harkness), but otherwise it’s music, not a man, that motivates her.

Her key relationships here are with other women: Rose-Lynn’s scenes with Susannah and Marion are the beating heart of the film. Okonedo’s warm performance shows how Susannah responds to Rose-Lynn’s spontaneity and (apparent) freedom, while Walters, fully inhabiting her character, is at her most low-key and perceptive, succeeding in making a credulity-stretching change-of-heart convincing.

Wild Rose wears its crowd-pleasing inclinations proudly, yet its nuanced relationships and refusal to make Rose-Lynn excessively loveable ensure that the film never seems too contrived or calculated. The social details feel right, with wider points about women’s struggles between family duty and creative expression unobtrusively incorporated.

It’s also visually more distinctive than its feel-good British predecessors, with Harper and cinematographer George Steel bringing vibrancy and warmth to their filming of the locations, contrasting Rose-Lynn’s Priesthill housing estate with Susannah’s palatial residence.

Cameo appearances from Bob Harris and musicians Neill MacColl, Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham will delight roots music fans, and importantly Wild Rose never mocks the scene. Rather, the film achieves the straight-to-the-heart humour and emotion of country at its best. 

About the London Film Festival Critics’ Mentorship Programme

Six up-and-coming writers from diverse backgrounds were selected out of hundreds who applied for the week-long London Film Festival mentorship scheme. Most of the critics had already blogged and were obsessive cinephiles, but had not been properly paid as journalists. Hoping to kickstart more mainstream careers and contacts, the students were each mentored by a media partner, including Time Out, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, ScreenDaily and The Evening Standard.

The critics attended the early morning press screenings every day, including Wild Rose, Suspiria, The Favourite and If Beale Street Could Talk, and met afterwards with chief mentor Kate Muir to workshop reviews in various styles – for a broadsheet newspaper, a tabloid, Sight & Sound magazine, and some even did a ‘first night’ review, with copy filed within 30 minutes of the screening.

They also wrote comment pieces for their media partners, worked on video and written reviews for the BFI website, and attended the festival’s filmmakers afternoon teas, as well as panels on the lack of diverse critics and breaking the class ceiling in UK film. After work, they networked at a few filmmakers’ parties.

The Guardian’s critic Peter Bradshaw came in for coffee to reveal the professional secrets on covering festivals like Cannes, and Leigh Singer discussed online video reviewing and his work programming the comedy strand at the festival. Three of the critics also appeared on Jason Solomons’ BBC London Film Podcast.

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