Wild Mountain Thyme is a hurried, generic The Quiet Man-Hallmark fairy tale mashup, with all the mess and none of the fun that description suggests.
From the moment the trailer for Wild Mountain Thyme dropped in early November, the film has faced a healthy backlash from viewers who have criticized the off-base Irish accents and the apparent use of recycled clichés to portray the country’s tradition and culture. Although these kinds of snap-judgment reactions may be merited and undoubtedly lower expectations in failing to clear such a low bar, they obviously shouldn’t preclude a watch entirely; it feels unnecessary to say, but the possibility for pure entertainment should not be forgotten amidst such anticipated concerns. With this in mind, Wild Mountain Thyme starts off promisingly, as Christopher Walken’s distinctive, enchanting voice-over (in the role of the old father, Tony Reilly) opens John Patrick Shanley’s latest romantic dramedy in classic “Once upon a time…” fashion, a strategy which establishes the film’s self-conscious fairytale styling from the beginning. Situated within a farming community in the Irish countryside, Wild Mountain Thyme’s core concerns the (quite one-sided) romance between headstrong, passionate Rosemary Muldoon (Emily Blunt) and her clueless childhood sweetheart Anthony Reilly (Jamie Dornan), their love of course hindered by the extenuating circumstances. Familiar themes — of family legacies, the tension between love and duty, and the dialectics between traditional and modern social norms — find footing in Shanley’s script, and coupled with early establishing shots of beautiful landscapes, the camera hovering over green fields where wild horses run, domesticated cows and sheep graze, and flowing rivers and tranquil lakes mark the land, there is promise for an endearing romp. But as the plot unfolds, nearly everything the film attempts proves increasingly disappointing in domino effect fashion.
The main reason for the film’s letdowns lies within a certain irony: while Shanley (with the collaboration of DP Stephen Goldblatt) is clearly interested in expressing the ostensible lyrical and transcendental quality of County Mayo, he fails to provide any solid, reliable ground for his characters and plot machinations to bloom from. Too soon Wild Mountain Thyme’s gorgeous but repetitive imagery starts to function as little more than some glossy postcard, and everything on screen is subsumed by the film’s faux-twee fantasy mode. Shanley, in adapting his own Broadway play Outside Mullingar, hastily sketches the form of his show with little of its substance; he builds little dramatic backbone for his characters that would allow them to animate the screen, and fails to even render them comprehensible, three-dimensional creations for the audience. All interactions and situations pass as quickly as they arrive, and that rapidity of plot prevents viewers from settling into these people’s feelings or tuning into the crux of any individual moment — cursory people come and go, fall in love, quarrel, and even die. Or take, for example, Rosemary’s sudden, one-day trip to New York to attend Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, only to be kissed by a seductive stranger, Adam (Jon Hamm). It’s all fairly whiplash-inducing.
This hurried shallowness doesn’t just undermine the madcap, oddball tenor Shanley seems to be aiming for, but it results in all the players here operating like the out-of-tune instruments in some vain attempt at orchestral spectacle. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the few enjoyable moments the film musters come courtesy not of Emily Blunt’s head-in-the-clouds Rosemary, Jamie Dornan’s goofball courter, or the wooden chemistry the two of them manage, but oddly from the Walken and Hamm cameos — the latter seems to be casually riffing on his familiar Don Draper charm here. Indeed, it becomes clear early on that Shanley is going to take every safe short cut available to expedite arrival at the film’s stereotypical happy-ending destination: where, of course, professions of everlasting love and romantic reconciliation happen following a downpour-set argument, and it all ends with a friendly sing-along in a local pub. The whole enterprise is a mess, but to put the experience of Wild Mountain Thyme in vivid, cinematic terms: it’s a Hallmark movie aspiring to mimicry of John Ford’s The Quiet Man, and exceedingly less fun than that bizarre precis suggests.