“No black ties (far from it!). Although members may complain about the ticket prices, they are at least no higher than ordinary West End cinemas— which, considering the expense of putting on a film festival, is more than reasonable. We are non-competitive, feeling that it is impossible to choose […] perhaps most important of all […] there has never been any nonsense about national representation, quotas, or other such-like chauvinistic criteria.”
So reads an introduction to the 12th London Film Festival, in 1968, the year that Cannes was called off due to protests in solidarity with French workers and students. The festival is not the same as it was. There were protests last year, and the dispute over the use of Picturehouse cinemas as major venues for industry and public screenings has been going on for years, the chain still failing to recognise its workers’ union and pay a fair wage.
It’s difficult not to find the above writer’s version of the festival appealing, even if it is publicity material. The prestige and wealth of London, trumped by the event’s glorious, shabby-academic-punkish lack of either. These days, what with red carpets and prize ceremonies and corporate sponsorship pasted on bathroom mirrors, it feels as if the pendulum has swung the other way. Fittingly, though perhaps coincidentally, mainstream British films over the same gap of time have become more self-consciously British, simultaneously proud and embarrassed at everything that is unglamorous, un-Hollywood, uncool, unimportant about them.
One of the more stilted, unfortunate (but not totally unenlightening) lines of dialogue in Wild Rose comes when Rose-Lynn Harlan, our country music singing, Nashville-dreaming Glaswegian heroine, compares herself to ‘transexual’ people, in reference to her trans-national affinities: ‘I’m British, but I feel American’. In many respects, I can relate, and not relate, to Rose-Lynn. I, too, sing America (less tunefully); despite the politics of the place, it exerts an inexorable pull. Britain has had its fair share of iconic musical rebels, but American rebelliousness overshadows it, ironically demanding submission to this almost purely aesthetic rebellion. English rebels are not romantic. Former rockstars live in expensive houses and tabloid magazines. There is no open road, only a handful of motorways leading to unimaginary towns.
Except for in Rose-Lynn’s Scotland, where before the SNP became a legitimate force, aesthetic rebellion was more or less the only battleground, a clinging to Tartans and dialects and whatever still felt untamed and exciting. Rose-Lynn says that there are no other country music fans in Glasgow, that she, alone, identifies with this music from across the ocean, that it speaks only to her. She sings other people’s songs, because she doesn’t think her life offers up the right material for country. She has two kids and loves them, but she’s too young and not prepared to be their mother. She’s just lost 12 months to a prison sentence for a (presumably) drunken escapade involving a package of heroin.
Country music, in its long stories, told in a short space, its forensic examination of cause and effect weighed against the random accidents of sad fate, its yearning for an unnameable freedom and unattainable peace— from authority, but also freedom from the self— has a lot in common with movies. Wild Rose is not an uplifting film about a talented woman finding success doing what she loves; it’s not a cod-social realist slice of misery, either. It flirts with both of those ignoble British cinema traditions, and finds its own balance, presenting a complex heroine with complicated, conflicting feelings, especially about motherhood. It’s about a woman who has to reckon with her own choices, deal with her burdens, not overcoming or triumphing but turning the material of her life into something worthwhile.
In the meantime, Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley) is a fun person to spend time with. Her extraordinarily expressive singing tells us more than any dialogue, or her ‘three chords and the truth’ tattoo, ever can about what this music means to her. Buckley delivers exactly what director Tom Harper’s long, intimate close-ups are asking of her, alongside the broad picaresque comedy of her ‘wild’ behaviour. The unaffected intimacy of Harper’s confident direction, which is understated but not dour, and able to keep up during musical sequences, is not something I’m used to seeing from veteran directors of British television. Harper clearly knows his Tennessee movies, from Mystery Train to Nashville, but wears those influences lightly. The film never becomes overwhelmed or colonised by genre expectations or country music tropes, sticking defiantly to its own path while allowing its protagonist to waver repeatedly. Rose-Lynn isn’t on some inevitable whirlwind to stardom. Instead, it’s all the more stirring to see her slowly adjust, to realise her goals by making them realistic for her.
The result is a film that is warm and romantic without being sensational, generous with its music without being throwaway, and believable in its drama, because even its cruellest moments are responsibly staged and put into wider context. Wild Rose works towards a resolution that strikes me as especially wise and authentic for a film of this kind, partly thanks to wisdom borrowed from Julie Walters, who plays Rose-Lynn’s mother, but also thanks to Nicole Taylor’s writing. She never shies away from forcing her characters to ask themselves tough questions, finding resolutions to their problems that are not convenient or glossed over. There’s emotional intelligence in every frame, from a team who have all shared the hard work of telling a simple story. It’s one of the least self-conscious, most earnestly committed British films in years.
WILD ROSE PLAYED AT THE 2018 LONDON FILM FESTIVAL. IT OPENS NATIONWIDE FEBRUARY 2019