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John Patrick Shanley follows Doubt with another persuasive argument against playwrights adapting their own work for the screen in Wild Mountain Thyme, a limp dollop of Irish whimsy that never sparks to life. Shanley’s 2014 play Outside Mullingar was a mellow charmer that returned with disarming sentimentality to territory not far from the writer’s Oscar-winning screenplay for Moonstruck, demonstrating the same faith that true love will eventually surmount all obstacles. But the light touch, the structural economy and lyrical voice that buoyed the gentle four-character piece on stage become cloying and strained in this clumsy expansion.
Audiences with an appetite for old-fashioned romantic blarney, the verdant fields of rural Ireland and heaping helpings of contrived quaintness might find something worth their time here. Those eager for entertainment with any kind of edge or cultural authenticity should look elsewhere. Derisive reaction to the film’s trailer in the Emerald Isle suggests it’s less likely to be remembered alongside The Quiet Man than Far and Away, the 1992 Hollywoodized Oirish epic with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, secretly dubbed by wags on the production crew as Fartin’ Away.
RELEASE DATE Dec 11, 2020
The problems start with the casting. As Rosemary Muldoon and Anthony Reilly, neighboring farmers in the Irish Midlands, pushing 50 but still locked in their respective solitudes and at risk of letting a love written in the stars pass them by, a de-glammed Debra Messing and Brian F. O’Byrne had beautiful chemistry on Broadway. We felt their yearning as much as their stubbornness, their silly misunderstandings and their nervousness about taking the plunge into uncharted romance. Emily Blunt and Jamie Dornan are a decade younger, which immediately lowers the stakes, as does their movie-star prettiness. With that hair and those cheekbones, neither of them appears in danger of being left on the shelf anytime soon.
Rosemary has quietly swooned for Anthony her entire life, despite nursing a grudge since he knocked her down and left her weeping at age 6. That plot point was already a little flimsy as a brisk anecdote in the play; brought to life onscreen it represents a shaky foundation for decades of festering resentment clouding her affections.
The terminal lack of self-esteem that blinds Anthony to her love is also traced back to childhood, when he was humiliated and rejected by his sweetheart, and in later years, to his failure to please his widowed father Tony (Christopher Walken). The crusty old coot refuses to acknowledge his son’s hard work on the farm, instead saying Anthony is not a man “who stands on the land and draws strength from it.”
That skepticism about his diffident son and Anthony’s seeming dedication to bachelorhood means Tony is thinking of selling the farm to his rich American nephew Adam, a character unseen in the play but brought to life here in an egregiously thankless role for Jon Hamm. The hitch is a strip of land that obstructs access to the Reilly farm’s gate, which Tony sold to the Muldoons years ago.
The movie opens with the funeral of Rosemary’s father Chris (Don Wycherley) and a visit from her mother, the freshly widowed Aoife (Dearbhla Molloy, reprising her stage role), to the Reillys’ kitchen. Moody Rosemary loiters outside, smoking in the heavy night rain, and when Anthony professes surprise at this, Aoife snaps at him in her acerbic fashion: “You never notice anything, Anthony. You are famous across Ireland for what goes by you.”
“Feisty” is writ large in hard-headed Rosemary’s character outline, so when she learns of Tony’s intention not to leave the farm to Anthony, she declares war on her elderly neighbor. To complicate matters, the parcel of land Tony wants to buy back now belongs to Rosemary, who has no intention of selling.
That contorted set-up of romantic hindrance, punctuated by the inevitable arrival of death that haunts every Irish tale, worked well enough on stage to sustain and even nourish the viewer’s pleasure while waiting for these two bruised loners to get over themselves and declare their predestined love. You knew exactly where the play was going, but there was intoxication in its winding path.
Here the road to blissful union, while never in doubt, is cluttered with pointless detours. The arrival of Adam for Tony’s birthday celebration reveals the American banker to be a suave man who desires a picturesque Irish cattle farm for much the same reason he rents a silver Rolls Royce: He’s all about making a big impression. But for reasons that make sense purely in terms of script padding, Rosemary is sufficiently intrigued to hop on a plane and spend a single day with Adam in New York. (As an unnecessary reminder of how much better this material worked on stage, they take in a ballet at the same theater where Outside Mullingar premiered.)
All this just makes the romantic outcome more protractedly belabored, with Rosemary and Anthony exchanging banter that veers from antagonism to shared existential gloom in scenes that spin their wheels without ever gathering momentum. Shanley tries to keep it quirky and humorous by seldom resisting a cute reaction shot of a cow or dog, but there’s just nothing particularly captivating about this lifeless romance.
Dornan has glimmers of touching vulnerability, but Blunt seems oddly uncomfortable, convincing neither in her character’s flinty fieriness nor the frustrated longings of her heart. By the time Rosemary takes charge and demands answers from Anthony about his obliviousness to her affections, a final hurdle that should generate feelings of agonizing sweetness, the scene has been so dulled by the circuitous slog to get there that it becomes merely agonizing instead.
Stage veteran Molloy conveys both the warmth and the brittleness of tart-tongued Aoife, but her scenes have been trimmed at the expense of the character’s rapport with her daughter. And Walken is simply wrong for the part. His dodgy Irish accent — the prize-winner in a contest of bad vocal-coaching — doesn’t help. He plays the crotchety humor with a self-conscious wink, often coming across as a half-baked sketch-comedy caricature. His scene of emotional reconciliation and atonement with Anthony, which was deeply moving on stage, seems forced, with only Dornan registering some genuine feeling.
Shanley works hard at conjuring a transporting sense of place, starting from cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt’s handsome opening shot of majestic coastline before the camera travels inland to the lovely pastoral County Mayo locations. There’s a gentle Irish flavor also in Amelia Warner’s score, enhanced by repeated use of the traditional song that gives the film its title. But for all the rolling hills and jolly local eccentrics, there’s a dispiritingly artificial feel to this sluggish adaptation, which exposes the insubstantial nature of a story whose wispy delicacy was part of its appeal in the original form.
Production companies: Mar-Key Pictures, Likely Story, Port Pictures
Distributor: Bleecker Street
Cast: Emily Blunt, Jamie Dornan, Jon Hamm, Dearbhla Molloy, Christopher Walken, Danielle Ryan, Barry McGovern, Don Wycherley, Mary Reilly, Darragh O’Kane, Abigail Coburn
Director-screenwriter: John Patrick Shanley, based on his play Outside Mullingar
Producers: Leslie Urdang, Anthony Bregman, Alex Witchel, Martina Niland, Michael A. Helfant, Bradley Gallo
Executive producers: Andrew Kramer, Zygi Kamasa, Jonathan Loughran, Stephen Mallaghan, Jared Underwood, Andrew Robinson, Danny Mandel, Colin Marshall, William C. Gallo, Allen Church
Director of photography: Stephen Goldblatt
Production designer: Anna Rackard
Costume designers: Triona Lillis, Kasia Walicka Maimone
Music: Amelia Warner
Editor: Ian Blume
Casting: Jeanne McCarthy, Louise Kiely
Rated PG-13, 102 minutes
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