Most sections of society, no matter how small or niche, can reasonably expect to be catered for by cinema. That includes the target audience for Wild Mountain Thyme, a demographic best described as “anyone who found Ed Sheeran’s ‘Galway Girl’ frustratingly short on stereotypes”. Don’t those people deserve movies, too?
John Patrick Shanley, a writer capable of likeable whimsy (Moonstruck) and utter preposterousness (Doubt), believes so. He adapted Wild Mountain Thyme from his 2014 play Outside Mullingar, which revolves around a minor land dispute and an unrequited romance. He also directed the film, which presumably involved asking the cinematographer: “Can you make everything a bit greener?”
The land dispute is settled briskly. Tony Reilly is dying, and finds himself in two minds about whether to leave his farm in County Westmeath to his son, Anthony. The lad’s face just isn’t right, Tony complains. Perhaps we should pause here to savour the irony that Jamie Dornan, who plays Anthony and is nothing less than beauty personified, is having his appearance trashed by Christopher Walken, who on a good day resembles The Scream made flesh.
After half an hour of teeth-gnashing, Tony abandons his plan to pass the farm to his American nephew, Adam (Jon Hamm), and gives it to Anthony, providing future screenwriters with an unrivalled lesson in anticlimax. Not so easily resolved is the longing between Anthony and the owner of the neighbouring farm, Rosemary Muldoon (Emily Blunt). Rosemary’s own mother (Dearbhla Molloy) calls her crazy. When first we meet her, she is smoking a pipe in the rain. Absolutely bonkers.
Anthony’s state of mind isn’t much better. Rosemary spies him arguing with himself in a boat on the middle of the lake. She calls his name, and he topples in. Splash! Scouring the farmland later with his metal detector, he falls over spectacularly for no apparent reason. Oof! Shanley dearly loves his slapstick, though Buster Keaton’s crown looks secure for the time being.
Back when Rosemary and Anthony were nippers, she vied with another girl, Fiona, for his affections, and lost. The stage seems set now for a romantic rematch. Except nobody has told Shanley. It isn’t that he has forgotten Fiona, because the script makes a point of having Anthony say he spoke to her recently. Instead, she becomes one of a string of women who are referred to without ever appearing. Tony mentions Anthony’s sisters, Trish and Audrey, on his death bed. Where are they, and wouldn’t they care for a cut of the farm?
The film finds room for reaction shots from the livestock, including a bull with a bad case of worms, and a donkey to whom Anthony proposes marriage, but no sign of anyone who might lend the plot some friction. Fiona’s absence is all the more mystifying when she could have supplied what is missing from Wild Mountain Thyme: a simple reason why Anthony and Rosemary have neglected to express their feelings for one another in 30-odd years.
The movie never satisfactorily answers that question. Tony labels Anthony a “bachelor to the bone”, frets that he is “not normal”, and laments the time he spends with “his magazines”. (Boyz? House & Garden?) Anthony even asks: “Mother Nature, why did you make me so?” All signs point to a problem that could be cleared up if only someone would press a DVD of God’s Own Country into his hands to show him that he’s not the first farmer to feel that way.
Rosemary goes so far as to ask whether he’s gay, though the word sounds as jarring as her sudden threat to freeze her eggs, so rooted is the film in a pastoral bygone era, long before cryopreservation and rural homosexuality were invented. Shanley does eventually supply an excuse of sorts for Anthony’s reticence, though it beggars belief that it survived the scrutiny of the script editors and financiers to which any film is subject. The big reveal is connected to nature, and to Rosemary and Anthony’s fondness for taming wild creatures.
The cast’s Irish accents, on the other hand, are left to rampage unfettered. All the way to Queens and back, in Walken’s case. The best that can be said of Dornan and Blunt is that they seem to be delivering their blarney through mouthfuls of toffee, Jaysus so they do.
Dornan’s wife, Amelia Warner, provides the score, which is thick with fiddles, pipes and whistles. Listening to it is like being beaten around the ears with a brochure from the Irish tourist board. Though no one could blame her for trying to drown out the dialogue. Among the highlights is Rosemary’s assessment of Anthony. “It’s good that you’re tall,” she says. “Men are beasts. They need the height to balance the truth and goodness of women.” Catchy.
Or Anthony’s response when she asks why he’s tied to the land: “There’s these green fields, and the animals living off them, and over that, there’s us living off the animals, and over that, there’s that which tends to us. Lives off us, maybe. Whatever that is, it holds me here.” Shall we put him down as a “don’t know”?
“Wild Mountain Thyme” is streaming from 30 April
This article appears in the 05 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, If not now, when?