Dir: John Patrick Shanley. Starring: Emily Blunt, Jamie Dornan, Jon Hamm, Dearbhla Molloy, Christopher Walken. Cert 12A, 102 mins
When it comes to Wild Mountain Thyme, the singularly most baffling film since Cats, the worry isn’t that revealing the ending might spoil the fun. It’s that no sensible soul would ever believe it in the first place. Once this feature-length ad for Ireland – if someone’s concept of Ireland were surmised entirely from St Patrick’s Day specials on QVC – reaches its big twist, the whole film starts to feel like an elaborate prank. Is John Patrick Shanley, the Oscar and Pulitzer prize-winning director behind this alleged romcom, simply sitting back and cackling at all our befuddlement?
Somewhere in County Westmeath (which is not on the coast, despite the frequent shots of cliffs), two farms nestle up against each other. One is the home of Tony Reilly (Christopher Walken), who’s knee-deep in preparation to kick the bucket – in fact, the film opens with a bit of flashforward narration, where Tony heartily declares: “Welcome. Welcome to Ireland. My name’s Tony Reilly, I’m dead.” He refuses to bequeath his property to his son Anthony (Jamie Dornan) out of fear he’s inherited his mother’s family’s propensity for madness, evidence of which seems to be the fact he remains unmarried in his thirties and is rumoured to have become a little too friendly with the donkey.
Nearby, separated by an inconvenient piece of land that requires much opening and closing of gates (a metaphor), lives Rosemary Muldoon (Emily Blunt). She is flame-haired and pale-skinned, with a face perpetually streaked with dirt. She doesn’t leave the house unless wrapped in an enormous shawl, smokes a pipe seemingly snatched out of Gandalf’s hands, and can often be found chasing after her wild-tempered horse (another metaphor). It’s clear that Anthony and Rosemary are meant to be. And yet they are not. That’s where the twist comes in. It’s one so boldly, tactlessly improbable that once revealed, it will bury itself inside your mind like a parasitic worm. Days will pass. You will think you’ve moved on – only to suddenly remember that this is how a real film, in the year 2021, decided to end.
It’s easy to imagine Shanley was aiming for something close to his script for Moonstruck (1987), which still stands up today as one of the most loving portraits of Italian-American life, despite being written by an outsider. And yet, even though he’s of Irish descent, he never pushes this film beyond the most basic, semi-fantastical image Irish-Americans have about their own heritage – which perhaps explains why Outside Mullingar, the play Shanley wrote and then adapted into Wild Mountain Thyme, was both nominated for a Tony in the US and described as “mystifyingly awful” by The Irish Times.
Are these characters ever shown eating anything other than stew? No. Do they use technology that existed past the Fifties? No. Has every character kissed the Blarney Stone and had a relative snatched away by the faeries? Quite possibly. Any credit for the prettiness of the landscape, as captured by cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt, should arguably go to Ireland itself for being so green and lush in the first place – there’s nothing innovative in the way it’s captured, since we’re largely exposed to the same old aerial shots of rolling hills. And the way Anthony talks about his homeland is so dour, his idea of flirtation is telling Rosemary that Ireland is “a terrible place for a decent person”.
And then, of course, there are the accents, which drunkenly stumble through the entire Emerald Isle before sidling up to Tom Cruise in Far and Away. Walken does very little, Blunt does too much, while Dornan has the hardest time of them despite hailing from Belfast. Wild Mountain Thyme will undoubtedly inspire its own cult following. It’s just best if Ireland is never exposed to it.
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