Lady Gaga gave a spirited performance in A Star is Born, but it would have helped the film’s cause if she were a newcomer, so that we might have shared in the revelation of talent. Something like that has happened in two similarly titled music dramas made 40 years apart: Bette Midler was not established internationally when she played a Janis Joplin-style rocker in The Rose, and nor is the 29-year-old Killarney-born Jessie Buckley, who makes a mighty impact in Wild Rose. Buckley, a runner-up in the BBC talent show I’d Do Anything, starred last year in the thriller Beast. Her contradictory qualities of fragility and ferociousness receive an even more extensive airing in the new film, in which she plays Rose-Lynn Harlan, an aspiring country singer who can knock people out with her voice – and her fists.
Having served time for lobbing drugs over a prison wall, Rose-Lynn returns to her two young children, who are living in Glasgow with her disapproving mother (Julie Walters). Parenting isn’t uppermost in her mind. Her dream is to make it to Nashville, though it’s hard to walk in cowboy boots, let alone get through airport security, when you’re wearing an ankle tag.
A job cleaning for Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), a middle-class mother whose home is full of “smelly candles and bottled water”, brings fresh opportunities for Rose-Lynn, and for the film. This new employer, a bit of a do-gooder, puts her in touch with the country music champion Bob Harris, who is as twinklingly gauche here as most celebrities are when required to play themselves. He tells her to pen her own material. “Whatma gonna write about?” she snaps. “The bleach ran away with the broom?”
Nicole Taylor’s screenplay is at its most inquisitive when probing Susannah’s discomfort with her privilege, and Rose-Lynn’s working-class chippiness and shame. The irresolvable tensions in their scenes, as well as the bald honesty of Rose-Lynn’s hands-off relationship with her children, bring the picture close to Ken Loach territory. A fantasy sequence in which a full band materialises around her as she’s vacuuming, not to mention a wish-fulfilment climax, suggest a closer affinity to Billy Elliot. When Rose-Lynn does sing her own song, it’s disappointingly full of clichés and imagery from The Wizard of Oz, a film she has shown no prior interest in. I’d rather hear the one about the bleach and the broom.
Wild Rose (15)
dir: Tom Harper
This article appears in the 10 Apr 2019 issue of the New Statesman, System failure