CineSavant Column

Tuesday December 22, 2020


Hello! A really good new movie came in… it’s about time. I’ve seen this one twice, and I’m ready to see it again.

It’s not often that I find that my reaction to a movie seems to contradict so many of the reviews out there. For me John Patrick Shanley’s Wild Mountain Thyme is a charming, wholly satisfying romantic comedy in a wistful, witty mode. It’s only the third job of direction from Shanley, over thirty years after the playwright/screenwriter’s similar romantic success Moonstruck. I guess that Wild Mountain Thyme is too easily rapped for elements that are out of fashion. Yep, it’s practically a travelogue for rural Ireland, and yes, some of its characterizations resemble theatrical stereotypes. Half the reviews I read get no further than a critique of the less-than perfect Irish accents, or offhandedly dismiss the show as ‘twee.’  I honestly wonder if these people saw the same terrific film that I did.

If someone can point out to me one insensitive Irish-ethnic moment in Thyme, I’d appreciate it. John Ford’s The Quiet Man deals almost exclusively in rank Irish stereotypes, and we still seem to cherish it. Shanley lightly addresses a couple of these America-Ireland image issues, in a scene on a jet plane. Just what about John Patrick Shanley offends these critics?  In my book he’s great writer and director. His dialogues address basic issues. Christopher Walken and Dearbhla Molloy play elderly, somewhat sickly characters; one of them responds to a complaint with an argumentative shout: ‘you’ve had a good time and raised your children, what more do you want from life?’ (para)

Thyme is stylized somewhere between Moonstruck and Joe Versus the Volcano. It’s a romantic comedy about neighboring farmers Anthony (Jamie Dornan) and Rosemary (Emily Blunt) that ought to have been married twenty years before. Nobody can figure out why not, least of all them, because they’re madly in love with one another. Anthony is a mass of contradictions about his self-worth and his identity. As a child he asks God why he’s so different, but we don’t know what he’s talking about. He must feel his insecurities more strongly than some people do. He’s so confused that he totally mis-reads all the signals from Rosemary. Love-struck Rosemary is too proud and traditional to kick aside the old rules and unilaterally propose; these people define themselves by old codes and want their lives to take traditional forms.

There’s no magic in feeding cows on a farm, but Thyme insists that people need magic in their love lives. Old Tony (Walken) describes falling in love with his wife only years after he married her, in an experience more or less identical to the ‘Bella Luna’ in Moonstruck. In Thyme the magic curses and delights come in the form of stars in the sky, the swans in Swan Lake (as opposed to an opera), a ‘thinning of the brain’ (as opposed to a ‘brain cloud’) and a lost ring.

Shanley doesn’t bother to explain everything — when Anthony tries to explain his romantic blockage, what he says makes little sense. I’m not particularly punitive about accents, nor do I insist that every film relationship make 100% perfect objective sense. Was too busy loving the experience of Wild Mountain Thyme and absorbing its positive characters and John Patrick Shanley wisdoms. Being an apt fan of previous Shanley shows helps. He has a strong voice and an atypical slant to everything he writes. The serious play Doubt says To Hell with political correctness — people must make compromises with the letter of the moral code all the time.

Thirty years ago critics unjustly slammed and buried Shanley’s Joe Versus the Volcano for being purposely goofy, even tacky: daring to style itself in a way that followed no categorizable trend. Yet I’ll champion Volcano as one of the most charming, humane and romantic films of its decade. The same ‘magical’ set of personal themes that shine in Moonstruck continue through Volcano. In Thyme they end up being a code for the mystery of being alive, of defining our self-identity. Shanley characters are reminded of the wonder of existence every time they stare at the night sky. Everybody is bombarded by ‘signs,’ by symbolic clichés. Unhappiness is expressed in perverse ways. Rosemary’s father expressed his life-anger by killing crows. A pair of gates express the way tangled intentions put absurd obstructions in our lives. Rosemary and Anthony are surrounded by externalized symbols. Her beloved horse is battering at the barn door, trying to get out. His dog sits quietly under a table, but is shouted at for causing trouble.

Does nobody listen to what movie characters say any more?   Every other sentence we hear in Thyme is wickedly funny, or a burst of unexpected wisdom, or both. The last climactic fifteen minutes or so is a battle royale of romantic temperament that was likely the core of Shanley’s source play Outside Mullingar. Yep, it can be frustrating that Jamie Dornan’s character is unable to express his feelings for a woman he actually loves more than life itself. Half of the reviews I’ve read reject the movie outright for presenting a romantic blockage that’s so ‘insubstantial.’ How many real human relationships do you know that are fully rational?  At one time or another we’re all alone out there trying to figure out who we are (Wolf?  Swan?  Bee?). If we have a missing hand or a ‘brain cloud’ or we’ve lost our courage or we already feel our love life is a hopeless disaster, we forget that such things are a shared part of the Human Condition.

The reviews I’ve read haven’t gotten far beyond Shanley’s purported artistic crimes of unacceptable accents, travelogue images, stereotypes, etc., to mention anything else about the movie. Also present is Jon Hamm in a decent supporting role, and endearing performances by Danielle Ryan and Lydia McGuinness. And taking on the best-played ‘stereotyped Irish’ part I’ve seen in a long time is none other than Barry McGovern, Joe Banks’ immortal Luggage Salesman.

Anyway, that’s my two cents. As with The Shape of Water and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood I’ve been a good boy and not given anything away, no spoilers. If this sounds tempting, avoid reading too much about the show and just check it out. The Irish accents didn’t offend me (says the uncultured me). It’s the best new thing I’ve so far seen under Covid Confinement.

Thanks for reading! — Glenn Erickson