John Patrick Shanley, Wild Mountain Thyme (review)

We watched “Wild Mountain Thyme” twice this weekend. It’s such a good movie,—and getting beat up so badly in reviews—I want to sing its praises.

You’ll want to watch the lead-in to the titles repeatedly: camera sailing over Irish coastline, god-carved cliffs, mild surf, turns in to green fields, a long narrow road to a farm, voice over by Christopher Walken: “I’m Tony Reilly. I’m dead”; introduces the Muldoon farm and the Reilly farms; shows us a fateful moment in the youth of the two heirs, young Tony Reilly, rebuffed by his 12 year old love Fiona, and Rosemary Muldoon ten years old, besotted with love for Tony but ignored. Their self-esteem set low, Tony pleads to the stars: “Mother nature, why have you made me?”; and Rosemary to her dad: “I have no purpose. I’m just a girl. The world is full of girls.” No, her father tells her, “You, for better or for worse, are the white swan.” Sweet and tender. Rosemary rushes outside and does a slice of Swan Lake ballet in thick wool sweater and yellow galoshes while Swan Lake music plays. Mounts her horse. From one frame to the next she’s 18 years old, stunningly beautiful (Emily Blount), and gallops off on her black horse, Blister. The landscape changes, no longer Emerald Isles, but Cuchullainesque and Ossianic, black sky, Rosemary a silhouette on a bare horizon, past leafless tree with ghostly arms and fingers, lightning flashes across black sky, camera soars, climactic moment in Swan Lake music, titles start: “Wild Mountain Thyme.” What barren hill and wild sky visualize is, swan-woman Rosemary Muldoon, landscape colored with the dark poetry of stifled Irish love.

So the curse of Odette (Swan Lake) is on Rosemary: her cursed state is hard-headed, proud Irishwoman. She will always love Tony, but who can love a cursed swan? Who can bring her dormant/repressed love to life? Neighbor Tony? Fraid not. He’s shy, introverted, his soul also aligns with a totem animal, the bee. We first see him (pre-titles) sticking his nose into a flower and coming out with pollen on it. Further bee moments bear this out.

Rosemary sends off signals of her love repeatedly over the years, all wasted on Tony. The curse can only be broken by a bold lover. Tony isn’t up to it. “Everything is difficult for the Irish,” says distant cousin Adam (John Hamm) wealthy New York banker, for whom everything is easy. He sweeps in on Rosemary and the farm, to marry the one and buy the other. Driven by this outsider, she takes desperate measures to break through Tony Reilly’s resistance.

There are exquisite moments;

– old Tony Reilly (Walken) sitting in a pub while Rosemary sings “Wild Mountain Thyme,” the favorite song of old Tony’s deceased wife. His face seems to lengthen, his eyes to reposition, pulled down by sorrow, tears held back, out of breath.

– Shut-up and repressed for all their lives, old Anthony realizes he’s dying and opens up his heart to Tony.

– Some nature mysticism that holds the people bound to the land. Tony doesn’t leave Ireland because “There’s these green fields, and the animals living off them, and over that there’s us, living off the animals, and over that there’s that which tends to us, lives off us maybe. Whatever that is, it holds me here.”

– Emily Blount’s acting as Rosemary.

John Patrick Shanley wrote and directed. The movie shares elements with his earlier Moonstruck. The love-rivalry of two brothers (cousins in this case); the alliance of the lover’s identity with an animal (swan and bee; Cher to Cage: “You’re a wolf…a wolf who had the courage to bite off his hand to avoid the mistake of the wrong love.”) Both tagged with a big musical theme: “Swan Lake”; “La Bohème”; a rough-edged, obsessive kind of love hardened by long denial/resentment. (N. Cage in the snow outside his apartment: “Love isn’t like they tell you in the books. It’s not here to make you happy. It’s here to make you fall in love with the wrong people, destroy yourself and die!”).

Rosemary breaks his and her resistance in one of the craziest love scenes ever written. She plies Tony with a sandwich, a Guiness, and a threat to blow a hole in him with her father’s shotgun if he walks away from her. In the end he confesses his secret: “I believe that I am a honey bee.” She drives the car into a tree.

Much of this would be sentimental if the characters were not so hard to penetrate emotionally. They are walls. And they burst open and spill out all they’ve been repressing out of shyness, orneriness or pride. It’s catharsis, not sentiment.

Never mind that it scored 29% on Rotten Tomatoes, or that Robert Ebert gave it two stars. It’s a very good film.

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