“Wild Mountain Thyme,” opening in theaters today, introduces itself as an Irish film first, a human story second. Its overture sweeps us up in stirring aerial vistas of the country’s endless green hills. Not a minute has passed before the Cliffs of Moher fill half the frame in their spectacular permanence. John Patrick Shanley’s first film in 13 years, “Wild Mountain Thyme” is so besotted a love letter to its Irish-American creator’s ancestral homeland that it feels as much like a filmed tourism pamphlet as a romantic comedy.
Eventually, a voice-over punctures the coffee-table-book cinematography, and, unlikely enough, it is Christopher Walken’s. “I’m dead!” he announces, in his chipper, Walkenesque way. His spectral narration gently flashes us back into the story, in which he plays Tony Reilly, patriarch of a parcel of soon-to-be-contested farmland in rural Ireland. The farm’s heir should be his son Anthony (Jamie Dornan), a sweet-natured but clumsy dreamer with a passion for earthen things. But the elder Tony has the inheritance set on Adam Kelly (John Hamm), Anthony’s entitled American cousin, who wouldn’t know a thresher from a spatula.
There’s also the matter of Rosemary Muldoon (Emily Blunt), strong-willed next-door neighbor to the Reillys and lifelong platonic acquaintance of Anthony’s. Why they never pursued their relationship further is inexplicable to all, and provides an opening for Adam to win not just the farm but the adjacent lass as well.
If the plot sounds at all familiar, Shanley adapted the film from his fine 2014 play, “Outside Mullingar,” which received a first-rate production from Palm Beach Dramaworks in 2016. It is the definition of a work that should have been confined to the stage, because Shanley’s cinematic embellishments are invariably clunky, presenting like decaf tea compared to the play’s spiky Guinness punch. (This is the one and only thing “Wild Mountain Thyme” has in common with the upcoming Oscar hopeful “One Night in Miami,” another excellent play that suffers from a stilted transition to the screen.)
In both his dialogue and direction, Shanley allows his most syrupy instincts to take over. His scenes tend to ooze arch romanticism or wither on a vine of platitudes. Every conversation feels like a state of the union; rarely does Shanley let his creations just be. This is never more prominent than in Walken’s deathbed reunification with his son, in which the invasive Celtic score, by composer Amelia Warner, desperately attempts to wrench pathos from a scene that in more capable hands should sell itself.
Things finally improve toward the climax, in which Shanley more or less sticks to the play’s framework, and lets Dornan and Blunt work out their issues as a tempest rattles their properties. Blunt, in particular, is the defibrillator keeping the picture alive, finding in her barbed delivery the tart humor that made the play so likeable. But even here, Shanley can’t help but cut away to newly written scenes on an airplane, giving Adam—for whom no one in the audience felt sorry—his own romantic consolation prize.
Of course, watching the film did make me want to revisit Ireland. I didn’t buy much of Shanley’s rewrites, which too often seem divorced from recognizable human behavior. But as a work of feature-length product placement, I’m sold on the Irish mythos.
“Wild Mountain Thyme” is now playing at IPIC and Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton, IPIC Theaters in Delray Beach, the Lake Worth Swap Shop and Drive-In, Savor Cinema in Fort Lauderdale, and more.