Friday 19 April 2019

Cowgirl dreams: "Wild Rose"

The first time Jessie Buckley walked onto cinema screens, in last year's Beast, she did so as a yearning blank, a fast-learning fairytale princess, a characterisation which allowed that blindsiding film to take us on the wild ride it did. In Wild Rose, the country music odyssey that plays something like a distaff Crocodile Shoes, Buckley presents from the off as altogether more lived-in, a line of history tattooed along the outside of one arm, and a crowd of concerned onlookers - a mum, two kids, a boyfriend of sorts - trailing in her wake. Her Rose-Lynn Harlan is quick to temper and possessed (if that's the right word) of questionable impulse control; within minutes of making her acquaintance, we sort of know why this young woman ended up behind the prison gates from which she first emerges, and that she's plenty capable of making rash or downright regrettable decisions. When she reveals her dream of parlaying her interest in all things country into a full-time Nashville career, however, we recognise she equally has the grit and self-determination, not to mention the name, to make that a reality. The film that organises itself around this flighty cowgirl is a character study that, slyly and cannily, reveals itself as a potential crowdpleaser, premised as it is on the sight of a woman of lowly means making something more of herself. Getting Rose from A to B entails a certain predictability, but it's the time-honoured predictability of an old standard like "Jolene": we have some idea how this narrative's going to play out from its opening bars, but that's not to say that we don't enjoy the playing out. 

Much of that can be attributed to the cast director Tom Harper has assembled to nudge his heroine forward. The script, by Nicole Taylor, insists no woman - not even a Dolly, but especially not a Rose-Lynn Harlan - is an island; Harper and casting director Kahleen Crawford surround Rose with individuals ready at a moment's notice to provide emergency child care, an injection of cash, or a kick up the arse. (All three will be essential to our girl's progress.) The presence of Julie Walters as Rose's mum suggests at least one person behind the camera had their eyes on Billy Elliot numbers, but Walters comes through with a smart, grounding performance as a sensible woman who's lived through far more than Rose-Lynn, and worries what her daughter's leaving behind in chasing rhinestone rainbows: her resolutely unimpressed face upon learning Rose has secured a meeting with Radio 2's country nabob Bob Harris is a particular thing of joy. Sophie Okonedo is tremendously sympathetic in what could have been a snide characterisation, that of a well-to-do architect's wife (lots of wafty fabrics) whose house Rose arrives at as a cleaner, and leaves with money, contacts and self-belief in her back pocket; and Harris proves rather charming as himself, drafted in both as an index of the film's authenticity and to ask the one question that should be asked of anybody making art several thousand miles away from their intended destination: "Why not?" (I was reminded of John Peel's bemused cameo in the otherwise long-forgotten Max Beesley/Ray Winstone vehicle Five Seconds to Spare; one suspects Harris will now be bombarded with demo tapes from real-life Rose-Lynns.)

Part of the film's quiet, creeping charm is that those mistakes Rose makes are believable, like overdoing it on the Tennants while travelling first-class from Glasgow to London and leaving her bag and phone behind en route. Taylor never downplays the character's wilfulness - Rose leaves an injured son behind in hospital to sing at a party that might boost her prospects, a choice even non-parents in the creative sector might find eyebrow-raising - and, as anybody who witnessed her flinty writing on the BBC's Rochdale child-grooming drama Three Girls last year will already know, she's not unduly keen on cutting corners. The one outright shortcut in this script - involving the handing-over of an envelope full of cash, and a perhaps surprisingly easy passage through the U.S. visa system for someone who spends much of the film electronically tagged - is earned emotionally on screen by having Buckley and Walters sit at opposite ends of the kitchen table to thrash out matters long-deferred. There, as elsewhere, Harper - who's surely done enough in a run of interesting, distinct projects (The Scouting Book for Boys, TV's This is England and War & Peace, 2014's nifty War Book) not to be muddled up with Les Miserables' far less reliable Tom Hooper - keeps matters as real as he can: here's a Glasgow of drizzly doorsteps and booze-soaked pub carpets, where there's just the right amount of washing-up upon the draining board in Walters' kitchen to tell us something of the house she keeps.

Only when Rose breaks into song does the sun come out - literally so, in the course of opener "Peace in This House" - although every number sheds some new light on the film's protagonist. When she defies security to storm the stage of the Govan Road's Grand Ole Opry, it's dazzlingly apparent she's here for a good time, and not necessarily a long time. Responsibility and discipline will come late to her, but throughout Harper wisely insists - much as Bradley Cooper did in last year's A Star is Born remake - on treating the musical sequences as proper live events, with a bunch of beardy Zydeco types in single, double or in one case triple denim plucking at guitars and lending the drama even greater amplitude, and Buckley front and centre, singing her heart out. You may, as I do, prefer your country a little more rueful and saddlesore - a little more Eric Church singing "Springsteen" - than Rose-Lynn's inspirational anthems, which may yet end up being revived on the soundstages of The X Factor or The Voice. And you may observe, as I did, that Taylor and Harper have merely fashioned a very savvy and, in the month the C2C Festival concluded and a new digital country music station went live, very timely cover version of a narrative that has provided recent British cinema with many of its greatest hits. You cannot, however, deny that Wild Rose has been composed and performed with heart, soul and unusual integrity.

Wild Rose is now playing in selected cinemas.  

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