“Wild Rose lives and breathes feminism without ever having to comment on it.”
Title: Wild Rose (2019)
Director: Tom Harper 👨🏼🇬🇧
Writer: Nicole Taylor 👩🏼🇬🇧
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Wild Rose was everything I wanted for A Star is Born (2018). While Bradley Cooper’s theatrical hit rehashed an existing story with little deviation from its male-centric roots, Tom Harper’s original Wild Rose actually charts the path of a newborn country music star.
That star is ex-con Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley), a dyed-in-the-wool Glaswegian who clings to dreams of going to Nashville to start her career as a country singer despite being saddled with two young kids at home (and a disapproving mum). Her internal struggle feels instantly engaging; after all, who hasn’t had to balance selfish pursuits with responsibility?
Harper’s film dances down the usual path of self-discovery, holding few surprises along the way. Yet Buckley’s incredible performance—and singing voice—galvanizes the theatre to a boot stomping good time. In the wake of so many disappointing band and singer biopics, it’s a joy to watch a musical that doesn’t lean on a golden goose of beloved hits (and powerful nostalgia) to produce its magic, but rather, brings the house down by its own merit.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Glasgow-born screenwriter Nicole Taylor, who won a BAFTA for her BBC miniseries Three Girls in 2017, skips the saturated market of adaptations to bring us this cool breeze of an original script. While it does riff on familiar notes of a young musician trying to make it to the bright lights, Taylor hums her own Scottish melody over a classic four-four beat.
The timing couldn’t be better for more representation in country music. Just last month, the Inclusionists from USC Annenberg reported that a paltry 12% of songwriters in the last four years of Billboard Hot Country charts were women. Performers don’t fare much better, with more than 5 men to every 1 female country artist. Wild Rose can’t fix entrenched sexism in the music industry, but it does help to watch Buckley belt her heart out on the big screen—and to hope that the Irish artist’s standout tunes like “Born to Run” (which I’ve been playing on repeat for the last week straight) or the soulful “Glasgow (No Place Like Home)” wind up on those charts.
As for story, Wild Rose lives and breathes feminism without ever having to comment on it. Rose-Lynn breaks stereotypes from the get-go, as we meet her being sedately processed out of prison only to burst out of it running-drinking-fucking in a frenetic montage. Only after she goes a round with her man (on top, mind you) does she come down from her high. Visibly deflated and hangdog, she returns home to her kids and mother after her yearlong absence.
As saddening as it is to watch Rose-Lynn disappoint her daughter and son throughout the film, it’s just as validating to recognize that maternal instinct doesn’t always come naturally. Mothers shouldn’t be demonized for maintaining personal dreams past childbirth, and Wild Rose gives audiences the opportunity to root for an imperfect protagonist who hasn’t given up on herself just yet.
It’s not like she isn’t trying—rather, Rose-Lynn clearly feels tortured by the broken bridges between her kids, or with her mother. But by letting us see her work through her issues rather than being unfailingly perfect, audiences are treated to an empathetic experience not usually afforded female protagonists. In contrast, men consistently use this emotional structure, of male savants who cause pain to loved ones as a narrative means to developing a character. In Creed II (2018), Apollo has Bianca and his mother. In A Star is Born, Jackson Maine has Ally. The British show Bodyguard employs this as well, on top of countless other male protagonists who hurt women and children, but go on to be the heroes of their own stories anyway. To reverse the roles and allow women this same leeway feels quietly radical.
Wild Rose does suffer from one glaring weakness: Rose-Lynn’s unconvincing friendship with her benevolent employer, Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), whose house she cleans.
Susannah faceplants into the Black friend trope, as she supports her daily woman (or housekeeper, in American parlance) without question. Even after being woefully mistreated as a byproduct of Rose-Lynn’s self-engrossed drama, we still see Susannah cheer for the singer in a later scene. At no point does Rose-Lynn ever have to reckon with her actions towards her friend. The shallowness of their relationship rings false, especially in the face of the rich emotional threads that surround Rose-Lynn’s family.
The rest of Wild Rose sketches a very white world, but one that doesn’t feel out of place for a film set in Glasgow. Despite being Scotland’s most diverse city, Glasgow was still 88% white in 2011 and this ratio feels visible in a memorable scene: During a party held at Susannah’s home, her swirling guests generally reflect the 1 in 10 people who belong to an ethnic minority. I would have liked to have seen more South Asian representation, since they comprise the largest minority group at over 6% of population versus the 0.5% that are mixed-race like Susannah and her children. But the real qualm I had in this category has more to do with the banality of its non-white characters, rather than an underrepresentation of them.
Mediaversity Grade: B- 3.75/5
A Star is Born had me gnashing my teeth at its centering of a toxic yet romanticized relationship, which only made it that much more of a relief to bask in the quiet feminism of Wild Rose. At its weakest, Susannah’s storyline deserves an eyeroll or two but doesn’t preclude a fantastically fun time overall. So scoot on over to the theater and make sure you catch this Scottish sparkler on the big screen. As for me, I’ll just be here bopping to the soundtrack until the cows come home.