The threat of Wild Mountain Thyme has been looming on the cinematic horizon for a while now with each new trailer and clip for the film bringing up bile and bemusement on social-media timelines.
Delays and shifts in a release date had the feeling of a stay of execution for a movie that’s already been badly beaten up.
Something’s clear in the opening moments of Wild Mountain Thyme, as a drone fly-over whisks us from the Cliffs of Moher to tree-lined country lanes all shot with Fáilte Ireland sheen. It’s that John Patrick Shanley loves Ireland.
Or at least, he loves a mixed-up version of Ireland that exists outside the bounds of time and space.
These rolling hills, greener-than-green grass and wide-open fields are straight out of a souvenir shop. Shanley’s vision is based on fantasy. It’s not hard to imagine the Shanley family’s apartment in the east Bronx with illustrated tea trays in the kitchen or postcards on the wall of unreal glimpses of the old country.
A summary of Wild Mountain Thyme’s plot reads like an Oirish Movie Tropes bingo card: two neighbouring farms, a land dispute, a couple of funerals, fated lovers, a slick American cousin, a runaway horse, small-town gossip etc. B-í-N-G-Ó.
Jamie Dornan is Anthony Reilly, an awkward bachelor living with his father, Tony (Christopher Walken[!]). He struggles to feel comfortable in his own skin. Down the road lives Rosemary Muldoon (Emily Blunt), and she’s loved Anthony all her life but finds his obtuseness and obliviousness to her feelings frustrating.
Tony has all but given up on his son settling down and intends to sell the family farm to Adam (Jon Hamm), Anthony’s financier cousin from America, giving Anthony a reason to finally work things out with Rosemary.
Much of the drama in Wild Mountain Thyme is of the kitchen-sink variety and it’s stodgy stuff. Characters are almost always asking questions of one another and then answering those questions with questions.
Now and then, Shanley’s rapid-fire dialogue will win out as one in every twenty gabby witticisms raises a genuine chuckle, but more often than not it’s the unpredictability of the cast’s line delivery that really kills.
Blunt’s Rosemary doesn’t reach the same acting-from-the-attic lows of Debra Messing’s Broadway performance of the same character, but her accent is consistent in its inconsistency.
Jamie Dornan suffers because of the film’s geography. His natural accent gives way to something that sounds like it’s been read aloud by Google Translate.
This is a particular pity in the wake of Dornan’s recent scene-stealing performance in Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar, in which his vulnerable, boyish characterisation felt sweet and natural. In Wild Mountain Thyme, Dornan is fighting a losing battle to surface a smidgen of that same energy.
Christopher Walken, who, to be fair, has never sounded like anyone else on Earth, hams it up in his usual manner. His work is at least charming in its absurdity, with his pronunciation of “Muldoon” being a particular highlight as Walken manages to fit three or four too many “Os” into the surname.
Funnily, Walken’s is the first voice you hear in the movie: “Welcome, welcome to Ireland”, he beams. “My name is Tony Reilly, I’m dead.” After 90 minutes of watching these stock characters cross-examine each other, you’ll wish that you were so lucky.
No surprise then that Wild Mountain Thyme is at its relative best when its characters are swept up in action and unable to speak. Shanley is able to work some of the magic of Moonstruck into sequences where nature itself pushes Rosemary and Anthony together.
It’s all pathetic fallacy all the time: torrential rain followed by a break in the clouds with rays of sunshine and another tourist board flyby blessing these fated lovers. With the score blasting and Stephen Goldblatt’s airy cinematography, Wild Mountain Thyme’s conclusion stirs through sheer force.
Loose ends are tied up neatly and explained away by magical thinking. Even the dead characters rise from their graves for a final singsong. It’s a charming end to a puzzling picture, in which there are no real conflicts, only misunderstandings, and complexity comes through only in the film’s sweeping camerawork.
To borrow an Americanism, Shanley swings for the fences. He mostly hits foul balls, but the flailing enthusiasm is admirable.
Shanley reflected on his Irish-American identity in an interview given to Variety around the time of Wild Mountain Thyme’s American release:
“I am an Irish American, which is a kind of mermaid. […] My father played the accordion in the living room and sang and my aunts danced in the living room. Both of my mother’s parents were from Ireland. So, I’m pretty freaking Irish.”
Poetic as it may be to dredge up mythical sea-creatures, a selkie seems more appropriate here. Either creature is though, appropriately, fantasy. The Ireland of Wild Mountain Thyme doesn’t exist, it’s overreaching. This is a reality out of sync from our own.
Shanley’s script for Outside Mullingar – the play that was turned into Wild Mountain Thyme – states the events we are seeing take place “recently”. But the decor of the sets and the manners of the characters make “recently” seem a long, long time ago.
I spotted a 2015 registration on a car, which confirms that the film is taking place this side of the 21st century, and that makes the Ireland of Wild Mountain Thyme seem all the stranger.
Adam, the American cousin, exemplifies this. He is treated like a unicorn – or a mermaid, if we’re using Shanley’s terminology. Characters act as though even an American visitor is the most novel of novelties, even though Ireland is a diverse society.
There is much affection here, so much so, that Shanley, in a love-drunk daze is unable to bring any of this nation’s reality to this cinematic dreamland.
For many Irish-Americans it would seem that John Ford’s The Quiet Man is still a primary text, a document of the way things ought to be. There’s a sequence early in that film where John Wayne spots Maureen O’Hara herding some sheep in the distance.
The framing is pure movie magic, stills destined to be screen-printed and slapped on Carrolls tourist trinkets.
Turning to his companion, Wayne asks: “Is that real? She couldn’t be …” Even in the quintessential fantasy of the old country, there’s an acknowledgement that it’s just that, a fantasy.
As for Shanley’s tea-tray view of Irish life, it’s no better or worse than the recycled stage Irish stereotypes inflicted on us by John Michael McDonagh, key difference being that Shanley’s film doesn’t play-act at reflecting any sort of reality.
McDonagh’s work is characterised by a cynical distance from his small-town subjects. Wild Mountain Thyme doesn’t pretend at serious-mindedness. Its silliness and unbridled love for Shanley’s fantasy Ireland is maddening, and for brief moments, infectious.
Wild Mountain Thyme will be available to view in the UK and Ireland on Sky Store, Amazon, Apple iTunes, Google Play, Virgin, Talk Talk, BT, Rakuten, XBOX, PlayStation, Chili TV and Showcase At Home.