Billy Bragg said skiffle was “three chords and the truth”, a definition originally used by country songwriting legend Harlan Howard to define the essence of country music. Now, it’s a phrase tattooed proudly on the arm of Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley) in Wild Rose– a Glaswegian, working-class single mum who dreams of being Nashville’s next big country star.
The film opens not in Nashville but in a prison almost 4000 miles away on the outskirts of Glasgow. Sentenced a year earlier for a drugs-related offence, we see 23-year-old Rose-Lynn packing up her country CDs and map of Nashville into a prison-issue plastic bag as she heads for electronic tagging before her release. “You’re gonna be the next Dolly Parton!” one of Rose-Lynn’s fellow prisoners shouts as she leaves, Rose-Lynne’s fist raised in the air and seemingly none the wiser for her experiences.
Her cowgirl boots don’t fit well over her electronic tag, meaning it’s an awkward walk home – first to her beau for a long-overdue reunion (which turns out to be a messy bunk-up in the middle of a field) and later to her family – her formidable mum Marion (Julie Walters) and two children, both of whom can barely muster a sentence to acknowledge their newly returned mother, such is the void between them. Her decision to visit her boyfriend first, family later, seems shocking until it becomes evident Rose-Lynn has left one prison only to enter another: a world where money is at odds with dreams, where responsibility clashes with creativity.
Keen for her daughter to “turn her life around,” Marion urges Rose-Lynn to take a cleaning job. After losing her slot as resident country singer at Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry because of her conviction – “Johnny Cash was a convicted criminal!” – she bellows to the beige country singer who has brutally taken her place, she is forced to take the position of “daily woman” at the house of Susannah (Sophie Okonedo) whose privileged, middle-class life contrasts starkly with Rose-Lynne’s.
On discovering Rose-Lynne’s voice and with too much time on her hands, Susannah starts to help Rose-Lynne to achieve her dream of getting to Nashville. The relationship is one we’ve seen many times on screen previously: a rich, well-meaning individual helping a poor one. But Okonedo portrays Susannah’s clumsiness in the face of her own feelings of inadequacy expertly and without cliché, meaning there is somehow empathy here rather than the animosity you might expect.
When it feels as though the film is about to head down a tired, age-old rags-to-riches tale before it takes a sharp, surprising turn in narrative direction, making Wild Rose something altogether more unexpected and subversive. As Rose-Lynn screams into a pillow in frustration, her silent bawl becomes a metaphor for the insurmountable obstacles she and many female creatives must face.
The crushing sense of inadequacy Rose-Lynn has when trying to balance motherhood, work and creativity to the point where all feel compromised is expertly depicted by the film’s writer, Nicole Taylor. The lack of support for female caregivers is perceptively explored by the film’s director (Tom Harper), so too are the difficulties of making art in austerity. At a time where working class voices are rare in cinema, Rose-Lynn’s narrative feels long overdue. The balance between crowd-pleaser and cliché is a fine one, but Wild Rose manages the former while also delivering a timely message from a voice we desperately needed to hear.