FILM REVIEW: Beautiful, Befuddled Blarney via Broadway

by Alexander C. Kafka

Can the moon strike twice? Sadly, no.

The question hovers over John Patrick Shanley’s new film Wild Mountain Thyme because it aims for the same sort of bittersweet heartache seasoned with gritty and eccentric comedic beats that characterized his Oscar-winning script for Moonstruck (1987).

The grit then was of the Brooklyn Heights variety while now it is West Irish farm dirt. The story, adapted from Shanley’s 2014 play Outside Mullingar, was inspired by a trip the Bronx-born writer took with his octogenarian father to the family’s County Westmeath homestead. Shanley was smitten with its denizens’ quirky, homey warmth and he translates that into a stew of poetically depressive, circular philosophizing centered around a thwarted romance between two neighboring farmers, Rosemary Muldoon and Anthony Reilly.

The result is a beautiful, somewhat patronizing, nonsensical muddle, in large part because it is irritatingly unclear what exactly does thwart the romance. The answers, near as we can tell, are Anthony’s self-doubt, inertia, and psychological instability and Rosemary’s pride. He is “touched,” as country folk often are on Broadway — talking to himself and carrying a sensitive secret. The long-suffering Rosemary has been waiting decades for him to make a move and subsumes her longing in cigarettes and a stoney-faced stiffness. On the rare occasion that she smiles, we fear that her visage may shatter.

The casting of these leads, Emily Blunt and Jamie Dornan, might be interpreted as a sly joke if the production weren’t so desperately soul-bearing. Their filmographies echo with majesty, kick-ass action, avant-garde concert dance, and brilliantly tyrannical nannying, in her case, and, in his, the administering of confident erotic spankings. Yet here the non-couple is made to brood endlessly and ruminate incoherently — amid the rolling, verdant, aerial-shot country hills and to Amelia Warner’s lyrical musical score — as if Shanley were collaging miscellaneous phrases from Yeats, Hardy, Lawrence, and O’Neill.

“That’s the world now,” says a chronically self-pitying Anthony, stopping off at Rosemary’s place with, of course, a truckload of sheep. 

“It’s not so. Men aren’t useless.”

“What’s a man for now? What’s his place?”

“That’s for you to say.”

“I’m not talking. Maybe the quiet ‘round the thing is as important as the thing itself.”

Or maybe we just need more character development.

Christopher Walken fares surprisingly well as Anthony’s father, although as with all the non-Irish actors in the project his accent is as thick as an inland fog. In contrast, the actual Irish like Dornan and Dearbhla Molloy, who plays Rosemary’s mother, manage simply to speak. Walken’s reaction to Rosemary’s singing in a pub (Yes, there’s pub singing to country fiddle and flute. Surely you would expect no less.) is touching, as is a twilight-days heart-to-heart he has with Anthony. For all that, I must admit, filmography here too intrudes — part of me was hoping that Walken would confess not only to marital ambivalence and the imprudent sale of a right of way in a pasture but to clenching an antique watch in an unseemly place. 

Jon Hamm, as Anthony’s American cousin Adam, a hard-headed New York money manager and rival for Rosemary’s affection, is a welcome breath of sooty air and appears to be the sanest member of the extended Reilly family. On an impulsive visit Rosemary takes to New York, he escorts her to a production of Swan Lake that jostles her restless, simple, working-class soul like Cher’s Loretta Castorini taking in Puccini, and then he gives her a good talking to over dinner and, afterward, a manly kiss. 

A wise therapist might wish to see the credits roll at that point. Instead, Rosemary returns home to torture herself with her unreliable childhood love and their stagey dialogues.

“It’s good that you’re tall. Men are beasts,” Rosemary tells Anthony over a glass of Guinness. “They need that height to balance the truth and goodness of women.”

“There’s no answer to blather like that,” he responds in a rare moment of common sense, and the heads of thousands of bored, confused Covid-lockdown romantics can only nod in agreement.