“Wild Mountain Thyme” opens with fiddles playing over a narrator saying “Welcome to Ireland” before promptly announcing that he’s dead — and that’s just the beginning of the bottomless pot of Irish charm that writer-director John Patrick Shanley dips into for this breezy romantic comedy.
Audiences may find themselves captivated or irritated — or, more likely, some combination of the two — over the hundred or so minutes that follow, but the film takes such a circuitous route down a familiar path, and does so with such wit and eccentricity, that the experience as a whole becomes harder and harder to resist.
Make no mistake, that “Welcome to Ireland” sets the tone for what’s going to be the tourism-board version of the country, from director of photography Stephen Goldblatt’s picture-postcard vistas of rolling green hills to the beautiful sunny weather that gives way to dark clouds and rain only when metaphorically necessary. And rest assured, you’ll be hearing at least three different renditions of the title song.
Based on Shanley’s play “Outside Mullingar,” the film tells the story of Rosemary Muldoon (Emily Blunt) and Anthony Reilly (Jamie Dornan), who have grown up on adjoining farms. Anthony has always felt a restlessness and an uncertainty about himself and the world, and Rosemary has adored him her entire life.
That scenario continues to play out as they reach adulthood, and their respective parents begin to wonder why the two don’t get married. Anthony’s father Tony (Christopher Walken, on an accent tightrope) even threatens to sell the land to Anthony’s American cousin Adam (Jon Hamm), who finds himself much more interested in the proposition once he lays eyes on Rosemary.
Shanley seems to be trying to recreate the magic of his “Moonstruck” screenplay, in which boisterous and eccentric characters are carried away by the prospect of love, but that’s a tricky formula to get right once, much less multiple times. The audience goes into a romantic comedy with a fairly secure expectation of how things will wind up, and it’s up to the writer to make the journey interesting anyway. Here, the storyline wants to suggest “Will they or won’t they?” but it all too often veers into “Just get on with it already.”
That’s where the skill of Blunt and Dornan come into play; I can’t speak for the precision of the British-born Blunt’s accent, but she gets the character just right, from the weariness of farm life to the cautious optimism that Anthony will finally discover, and then convey, his feelings for her. (Blunt also makes Rosemary’s love of the ballet as convincing as Ronny’s passion for opera in “Moonstruck.”)
Dornan, who’s gotten few opportunities to be funny on film, seizes the moment, capturing a conflicted character who’s enough of an oddball to convince viewers that the eligible women of three counties wouldn’t be flocking around someone who makes a pair of coveralls look like a tuxedo.
Whether or not the word “whimsy” makes you flinch is probably a fair indicator of whether “Wild Mountain Thyme” is for you, but if you’re looking for the cinematic equivalent of a hot cup of tea on a blustery day, you might find yourself developing a taste for its particular brand of quirky romance.
“Wild Mountain Thyme” opens on demand and in theaters Dec. 11.