Movies are constantly coming up with reasons to keep lovers apart for long enough to convince audiences that they genuinely belong together, but “Wild Mountain Thyme” may be the first film in which those obstacles are never made clear. Rosemary Muldoon (Emily Blunt) is beautiful. Anthony Reilly (Jamie Dornan) is beautiful. These two Irish neighbors grew up on adjacent farms, and the “once upon a time”-style opening narration — delivered by Anthony’s father, Tony, played by Christopher Walken — makes it all to evident in the opening minutes that these two are destined for one another. And yet, Rosemary and Anthony are not a couple.
Adapting his own Tony-nominated play “Outside Mullingar” in the key of twee, director John Patrick Shanley has made a film that many will enjoy, but few will understand, and it’s not helped by a prologue in which young Anthony gazes up at the stars and asks, “Mother Nature, why did you make me so?” — a question the movie never deigns to explain. Rosemary adores him, whereas Anthony seems ambivalent, referring to “a tiny tininess in my brain,” whatever that means. As Sigmund Freud said of the Irish, “This is one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever.”
A right odd gossoon, Anthony’s not gay, and best we can tell, he’s only met one other girl besides Rosemary in his life — a forgettable lass named Fiona whom he fancied when they were kids. That rivalry was tough on Rosemary at the time, though she was too “besotted” by Anthony to hold it against him. Or maybe she has. Shanley includes an amusing detail about a little piece of land at the end of the Reillys’ driveway that the Muldoons own, punishment for a childhood incident in which Anthony shoved Rosemary.
Grudges aren’t easily forgiven in Ireland, although it’s hard to untangle what kind of emotions these two feel for one another, beyond the near certainty that they will resolve themselves with a kiss in the end. In any case, it’s been a quarter-century now that Rosemary’s been waiting for Anthony to work up the nerve to ask her out. Their dynamic isn’t so much flirtatious as familiar. Anthony looks at Rosemary as a brother might his sister, which is as far from romantic as the movie’s accents are from authentic. “Wild Mountain Thyme” is the kind of film you want to love, just as you want these two characters to fall in love, and it’s simultaneously exasperating and original that they don’t go about their courtship in the usual fashion.
Shanley, as we know, also wrote “Moonstruck,” a near perfect romance about imperfect people, which director Norman Jewison kept from inhaling too much of its own helium. That movie painted Italian Americans as something more than stereotypes, and Shanley tried to do the same with the Irish in his play, although alterations made for the screen (like that horrible opening narration, stretched over a six-minute Tourism Ireland montage of emerald hills and ivy-covered churches, undoubtedly the result of test screenings and reshoots) lean in to our collective clichés about the island. The movie might as well take place in a snow globe, with shamrocks in place of soap flakes. Except for a one-day trip to New York that’s easily the film’s most far-fetched moment, its world seems to end at the borders of these two farms.
In “Moonstruck,” casting was half the appeal, but Dornan and Blunt are no match for Nicolas Cage and Cher. For starters, they’re too damned glamorous. There’s a joke buried deep in the film when Jon Hamm hops a plane (he’s playing a nephew to whom Tony has decided to sell his land — an embellishment from the four-person play). “You don’t look like an Irish farmer,” his seatmate says. “You don’t look tired enough. And your hands don’t look like feet.”
Neither do Dornan’s or Blunt’s hands, for that matter. In fact, one doubts either spent even a day doing farmwork in preparation for their roles. If Anthony looked like Quasimodo, his hesitation might make sense (it would explain his query to Mother Nature), but smearing a bit of mud on the stubbled “Fifty Shades of Grey” star hardly gives him the look of someone who’s spent a lifetime in the fields. Blunt isn’t so hard on the eyes either. Her big introduction occurs amid a downpour as Rosemary smokes a pipe, wearing what looks like Edith Head’s idea of a rustic raincoat. Everything is lit just so, which makes it rather surprising that the two don’t make out right there in the muck.
But Dornan’s meant to be awkward, and Blunt is the victim of some misogynistic, medieval idea of pursuit, obliged to wait for him to make his move (another flashback to “Moonstruck,” when Cher instructed Danny Aiello on how to propose). Tony is convinced the kid never will, which is why he’s decided to sell his land to Hamm’s Adam instead. Adam lives in New York, and causes quite the scene when he shows up to seal the deal. Shanley seems to enjoy big, showy gestures, so he’s constantly giving his characters business to do — such as singing the folk song that lends the film its name — or better yet, things to fall off of (like wobbly rowboats and low stone walls).
John Patrick Shanley has made just three movies in 30 years, although he’s written a great many more than that, and judging by his previous efforts, “Doubt” and “Joe Versus the Volcano,” this one could have gone either way. The fact it’s so uneven may not even be his fault. Consider another movie in which Emily Blunt was miscast, “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” which turned a pair of fuddy-duddy Brits into photogenic movie stars and a charming bureaucratic satire into an off-kilter rom-com: She’s a terrific star, but altogether too unordinary for some roles. Meanwhile, glimpses of this movie’s poetic sensibility appear from time to time, as in its outlook on death — which, we finally learn, explains Anthony’s hesitancy.
“Where do we go when we die?” he asks Rosemary. “The ground,” she says matter-of-factly. “Then what’s the sky for?” “For now,” she says. “The sky’s for now.”
If only the entire movie were so lovely. Not in the picturesque sense this movie has in mind, but in a way that trusts human truth to warm our hearts. We don’t need drone shots of calendar-worthy countryside to make us swoon. Sometimes, the right words spoken at the right time are all it takes.