Former singing show contestant Jessie Buckley (she came second in I'll Do Anything in 2008) has already garnered awards attention for her debut role in Michael Pearce's Beast (2017), but she's about to go stratospheric as a result of her star-making performance in Wild Rose, a feel-good British drama that's destined for instant classic status.
Buckley plays Rose-Lynn Harlan, a Glaswegian ex-con who dreams of becoming a country singer. We first meet her as she's leaving prison, where she has clearly impressed the other inmates with her singing voice. However, it quickly becomes clear that the odds are stacked against Rose – not only does her court-ordained ankle bracelet severely limit her gigging opportunities, but she also has to look after her two young children, who were staying with their grandmother, Marion (Julie Walters) while Rose was in prison.
Hope arrives in the unexpected form of Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), the middle-class woman who employs Rose to clean her large suburban home. After hearing Rose sing, she's entranced by her voice and offers to help her raise the money she needs for a trip to Nashville, where she hopes to achieve her dream.
The plot may sound overly familiar, but Nicole Taylor's expertly crafted screenplay cleverly wrong-foots the audience, straying from the predictable path and delivering a powerful gut punch of emotion in the process. To that end, the film presents a wrenching mix of feel-good fantasy, tempered with kick-in-the-teeth realism, as Rose's propensity for self-sabotage kicks in at the worst possible moment.
Buckley is simply phenomenal in the lead role, and not just in the singing scenes. Aside from busting out a note-perfect Glaswegian accent (reminder: she's from Killarney), she delivers an achingly heart-felt performance that resonates in every facial expression and flicker of the eyes. One moment in particular stands out – when she's sitting with her children at Marion's kitchen table and looks utterly helpless, like she's a child herself – but whatever she does, you can't take your eyes off her.
As great as Buckley is, she's made even greater by terrific supporting turns from Walters (underplaying to perfection) and Okonedo, who considerably softens what could have been a cloyingly patronising role. Accordingly, Rose's tentative relationships with both her mother and her would-be friend form the heart of the film and play a key part in her path to maturity – the result, which comes in the form of a note-perfect final scene, is immeasurably satisfying.
Director Tom Harper (who also directed Buckley in the recent BBC adaptation of War and Peace) gets the tone of the film exactly right, ensuring that both the laugh-out-loud moments and the cry-your-eyes-out moments land with equal weight. He also does a terrific job with the music sequences, aided by a handful of superb songs that were co-written by Buckley, Taylor and, surprisingly, in the case of the final song, actress Mary Steenburgen.
This is, in short, the best British film of the year, and if Jessie Buckley doesn't win the BAFTA for Best Actress next year, there is officially no justice.