Round the middle of this decade, when it became clear that Saoirse Ronan was here to stay awhile, some observers remarked on a curious fact: The Republic of Ireland has given us male actors such as Liam Neeson and Colin Farrell but hasn’t had nearly the same track record with women. May I introduce Jessie Buckley, the star of Wild Rose, which plays at the Grand Berry Theater’s grand opening this weekend. She’s also from Ireland, and she has Ronan’s ear for accents, but she’s zaftig and plain where Ronan is sylphlike and classically beautiful. She also has the makings of a star; last year, she gave a deeply unsettling performance as an English murder suspect in the excellent thriller Beast.
Here, she creates an altogether different impression as Rose-Lynn Harlan, a Glasgow single mother who might just be the biggest country-music fan in all of Scotland. She favors denim skirts and cowboy boots, has the words “three chords and the truth” tattooed on her arm, and has even named her kids Wynonna and Lyle (Daisy Littlefield and Adam Mitchell). She also likes a drink and a fight, isn’t in touch with the father(s) of those kids, and has a one-year prison stint on her record. These are hardly dealbreakers for an aspiring country star, but they do mess up her personal life: Those kids barely talk to her, she struggles to hold down a job cleaning a rich woman’s house, and her mum (Julie Walters) tells her to let go of her pipe dream of going to Nashville to make it as a singer.
The story is a thorough piece of hackwork, with director Tom Harper and screenwriter Nicole Taylor following the template of a thousand American movies about troubled people whose only way out is their music. The kids only exist to make Rose-Lynn feel guilty about the choices she’s made, and the character of Rose-Lynn’s English employer (Sophie Okonedo) is a particularly regrettable one-dimensional benefactor — it turns out that white saviors are no more interesting when they happen to be black.
However, if the framework around her is fake, Buckley is the genuine article, her red hair flying all over the place whether she’s running late somewhere or tearing it up on stage singing Chris Stapleton’s “Outlaw State of Mind.” The movie also gives you a look at Glasgow’s country music scene, something you might not be aware of. (Did you know there’s a Grand Ole Opry there? It’s a real establishment, not a location created for the film.) The songs on the soundtrack are a combination of new songs (some co-written by Buckley and Taylor) and covers of songs that show more than a superficial knowledge of the genre. Rose-Lynn does make it to Nashville, and even though the trip doesn’t go quite as planned, when she goes up on stage at the Ryman Theater by herself and sings Emmylou Harris’ “When I Reach the Place I’m Going,” you can feel her finally finding a sense of peace with herself. More than anything, she’s the reason why Wild Rose feels like an old song heard with fresh ears.
Starring Jessie Buckley and Julie Walters. Directed by Tom Harper. Written by Nicole Taylor. Rated R.