Wild Rose, backed by the BFI Film Fund with National Lottery money, is in cinemas from 12 April 2019
Wild Rose is about a young Scottish woman struggling to achieve her dream of becoming a country music star. Aside from the lack of opportunities open to Rose-Lynn Harlan (Jessie Buckley) in her Glasgow hometown, the path to singing success is hindered by simultaneous familial and legal troubles. It’s one challenge that Rose-Lynn can’t go out at night to perform because of her court-ordered electronic tag – she’s fresh out of prison, having been caught trying to smuggle heroin into a jail; it’s quite another that she has a son and daughter to bring up, with only her sternly disapproving mum, Marion (Julie Walters), for help.
Director Tom Harper’s drama, scripted by Glaswegian writer Nicole Taylor, wowed festival audiences in Toronto, London and Glasgow, with justifiable buzz around another stunning lead performance from Buckley. From her TV talent show roots on I’d Do Anything to her layered, mysterious work in Beast (2017), the Irish actor consistently delivers. This time she’s vulnerable and brash, energetic and melancholy: a vital presence with a voice to match. She’s ably supported by the ever-dependable Walters and Sophie Okonedo as Susannah, an affluent woman who tries to help Harlan’s plight.
Harper signed up for Wild Rose after a chat with producer Faye Ward, knowing Buckley was already on board. The director worked with the actor on the BBC’s big-budget recent adaptation of War & Peace, a plush six-part TV series that brought Tolstoy’s period epic to new audiences, with US indie favourite Paul Dano in the lead role. What is it about Buckley that makes Harper want to work with her? “So much about creativity is about taking risks and taking risks can be quite exposing,” Harper says. “You need to feel you’re in a safe environment with someone that you can push each other to take those risks. I think that’s what I really like about working with Jessie, that we push each other.”
This risk-taking element, along with its willingness to resist cliché, is what makes Wild Rose work. Shooting on location in rarely filmed Glasgow neighbourhoods like Tradeston and Priesthill gives the film an edge you won’t find in A Star Is Born or other wannabe singer films. Harper explains: “Rose-Lynn’s relationship with Glasgow, and how it evolves, is so key that there’s no way we could have shot it anywhere else. For the authenticity of the piece we really needed to be in the place because so much of her is about her truth and about confronting her own truths.”
Striving for authenticity took the filmmaking team to such lengths they shot a scene where a despondent Rose-Lynn gets a job cleaning café tables at the city’s Silverburn shopping centre. They couldn’t get permission to film there, but – true to Glasgow’s rebellious spirit – shot the scene from a distance anyway, only for the café manager to stop Buckley cleaning with a terse “What are you doing?”
Yet anyone thinking Wild Rose is just another kitchen-sink drama will be pleasantly surprised, even if Harper himself has experience making several gritty works. In 2010, he shot two episodes of This Is England ’86, Shane Meadows’ acclaimed, if hard-hitting, TV series, while in 2013 he followed this with three episodes of Steven Knight’s Brummie crime saga Peaky Blinders. In 2014, he directed War Book, which is probably the most harrowing title on his filmography to date. Set in a civil service meeting room, the film depicts a war-game in which participants forensically discuss government policy in the event of a nuclear war.
Harper says: “I think British cinema is based upon realism, and so that’s always going to play some part, particularly with a story like this, but there are definite times where it branches out from that.” Indeed, one of the film’s best scenes comes when Rose-Lynn takes a cleaning job at Susannah’s vast home and loses herself in song while vacuuming. She gives a full-tilt stage performance, imagining a band playing around her on the carpet – until her reverie is interrupted by Susannah’s pre-teen children returning home from school. Harper says: “It’s not just about a girl who wants to be a singer. It’s about a girl who’s got magic inside her and she’s trying to get it out.”