When I was younger and learning to play the piano, I became enamored with the sustaining pedal. Notes would meld into the next, and chords could be maintained longer than just a touch of a finger, but I knew I wasn’t hitting all the right notes. One day, my teacher Nina told me that the pedal covered the mistakes, creating a shadow over the notes and, instead, identified the off keys.
This seems to be true for John Patrick Shanley’s new film about a pair of star-crossed lovers in Ireland who won’t just have an open, honest conversation about their feelings for each other. The oversights in the script, and over-reliance on a score, exaggerate the plot holes and lack of character development. Wild Mountain Thyme had all the elements of a romantic comedy, but the composition, ultimately, is tonally messy.
Tony Reilly (Christopher Walken) opens the film with narration and reveals that he is dead. He raised his son Anthony (Jamie Dornan), whom Tony jokes ‘is famous in Ireland for what goes by you,’ in rural Ireland, neighboring the farm owned by Aoife (Dearbhla Molloy) and her daughter Rosemary Muldoon (Emily Blunt). Rosemary is headstrong, no-bullshit, and beautiful; Anthony is awkward, timid, and incredibly handsome. They’ve been friends for years. Tony decides that he can’t see a direct line in the family to leave the farm to Anthony, who remains unmarried. Instead, he decides that Anthony’s cousin Adam (Jon Hamm), an American caricature of wealth and privilege, should inherit the property instead.
Why? Well, Anthony has always been in love with Rosemary but never confessed his feelings, and Tony decides that Anthony’s singledom is a hindrance to him owning the farm. For her part, Rosemary admits to Tony her affection for Anthony, determining that he will come around and ask for her hand in marriage. But poor nebbish Anthony can’t manage to find the right words to declare his affections. They might be the last two grossly attractive singles in town with a deep connection and gentle chemistry, yet neither is ready to acknowledge that they’ve been in love with each other for years.
The film adapts from Stanley’s Broadway play Outside Mullingar, and it’s hard to tell if the new feature is too earnest or a parody of romantic films. The scenery, of course, is stunning, and cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt sweeps across luscious pastures. However, the gorgeous surroundings cannot fix the oversights. For starters, the accents are awful. Dornan fairs best because he is Irish, but both Blunt and Walken are unconvincing. Thank goodness for Blunt’s characterization, as she doesn’t have much to do here while Rosemary waits for Anthony’s declaration of love. Blunt ensures a captivating performance but an often outlandish accent.
Most notably, Walken has a cracking scene where Tony and Anthony discuss why Tony won’t leave the land to his son. His attempted Irish accent is thrown to the cows, and he delivers an emotional performance in the natural elongated articulation that is Walken’s trademark.
Perhaps the most affecting scene is when Rosemary wants to get to the root of Anthony’s indirectness amid a storm. The conversation weighs heavy on the characters, and it feels like we’re making progress in the story until Shanley intercuts the scene with Adam on a flight to Ireland and talking with his seatmate. The aircraft’s engines’ drone is a stark contrast to the heaviness of Rosemary’s and Anthony’s confrontation. Instead of playing out the most exciting stage in the film in real-time, it’s sliced with an otherwise exterior scene that doesn’t add value for either central character.
The conjunction of tone and farce confuses this film from being more grounded. Why else would Adam gift Anthony with an Inspector Gadget-style jacket? Is it so Anthony will look ridiculous while walking around with a metal detector? Confusingly, Anthony also declares that women don’t need men anymore, so there is no role for a man, as though that’s a reason for him not to profess his love for Rosemary. Furthermore, Anthony is frequently messy working on the farm, seemingly disregarding personal hygiene, while Rosemary presumably operates her farm alone but always wears perfectly ironed clothes with neat hair. Also, without revealing any spoilers, the mention of Anthony’s bizarre identity crisis was the last straw. These elements work against each other, and rather than build these characters authentically, they instead feel out of sync.
Then comes a moment where Rosemary shows a more sensitive side, getting up on stage in the pub and singing a solo rendition of ‘Wild Mountain Thyme.’ Tony watches on, relishing the profound weight of the song before the audience joins in. The beautiful moment shows Tony’s attachment to the music and is Rosemary’s attempt to convince Tony not to give the farm to Adam. It’s a profound note that predicts a film that might’ve unfolded its story in a more transparent direction.
Unfortunately, Shanley holds the sustaining pedal for too long, and it’s difficult not to see the mistakes.