Tattooed on the right forearm of Jessie Buckley’s Rose-Lynn Harlan character from Tom Harper’s Wild Rose is the phrase “three chords and the truth.” It is an homage (and clear naming inspiration) to the quintessential description and motto of country music coined by 1950s era songwriter Harlan Howard. The phrase has gone on to title three albums, three songs, and one book for its simple inspirational quality. For anyone listening to the bulk of the current popular and over-produced country music, that prime cut quote is quite lost in the instrumentation and the lyrics.
In spite of that mainstream majority, we’ve got a girl from Glasgow, Scotland, behind bars with those historic words permanently etched into her skin. Foreign soil be damned, the honesty and harmony of hardscrabble are alive and well in Wild Rose. Shouts of anger and tirades of tears fuel the fights and the vocals churning from Jessie Buckley in what will stand as one of the finest performances of the year.
Real country music (not most of today’s stuff) certainly takes a mood and a mindset. Take another Harlan Howard anecdote on influence further that reads:
“I was captured by the songs as much as the singer. They grabbed my heart. The reality of country music moved me. Even when I was a kid, I liked the sad songs… songs that talked about true life. I recognized this music as a simple plea. It beckoned me.”
For a woman leaving prison trying to eke out a living and reconnect with the children who barely know her after years away, the warble and woe of country fits like a glove.
That’s the state of affairs for the hot-headed and hard-headed Rose who hides a tracking anklet under her white cowboy boots. She needs more than a little spit and polish on the outside as well as the inside. With a false bluster of “there’s nothing here for me,” her bulls-eye remains going to Nashville and getting discovered. For now, it will have to the local scene of Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry if Rose can settle her temper from costing herself work and gigs.
Her continued nonattendance to chase the bottom of a bottle or the mountaintop of a pipe dream has led her mother Marion (two-time Oscar nominee Julie Walters) to be the breadwinner and primary caregiver of Rose’s two children (Daisy Littlefield and Adam Mitchell). Making ends meet as a hired housekeeper in a richer side of the city, Rose befriends her boss Susannah (Hotel Rwanda Oscar nominee Sophie Okonedo) who loves the singing heard from Rose while working enough to possibly become a financial patron for going to the next level.
The unvarnished domestic realism of Wild Rose is one of the film’s greatest strengths. Unlike its bigger Hollywood counterparts that zoom straight from rags to riches with nary a cautionary tale speed bump or two before expected and indulgent glamour, the sacrifices of this narrative have true and thirsty failures and consequences. Holding down a real job and the basic learning experience to not go back on something for her kids are two of many steps that represent the choices for Rose between properly shared obligations or loftier selfish wants. At some point, hope is either changed, satiated or both for her.
Wild Rose focuses on the lulls of life in the middle because the strength, as always, is in the journey. The rich reward for the patience in TV writer Nicole Taylor’s screen story is not merely a proper big song finish, but the investment in what Jessie Buckley can do without a stage beneath her feet. The mother-daughter scenes of strife between Buckley and Julie Walters, a treasure of toughness every movie she’s in, are phenomenal for their rawness. More of than not, it’s Buckley herself filling the frame with wounded reflection and dramatic character turns from realistic disillusionment. Cinematographer George Steel’s camera loves her even when she’s in shambles.
True to the Howard aside from Lesson #1, the stark reality of Wild Rose and the weight of its songs to tell this story hit forcefully. This soundtrack, featuring work from composer and producer Jack Arnold, will grab you from the first song, “Country Girl,” onward. Buckley is a powerful and passionate singer. She and her character have talent and things to say. There’s not a willowy willow in those woods. If anything, one wishes there was even more of Buckley weeping wildly into more auditoriums and microphones. Beckon us, Wild Rose, with more and more.