“Do you still hear the voice in the fields?” she asks.
“I don’t know.”
“It’s not a modern idea,” she says.
“I’m not a modern man.”
Bewildered, then intrigued, then charmed. This has been the trajectory of my feelings for this movie, Wild Mountain Thyme, which I first watched for no other reason than I recognized the title of it as the name of a song on James Taylor’s recent album, Before This World. I liked the song, with its folk melody that has the peculiar flavor of being non-modern. It’s not a melody that would be written today, nor the words. Something about it calls to the modern ear, a memory echoing from a happy heart among green hills, from before the world grew so complicated and fraught.
So I put the movie on and sat down with my wife on the couch. As the movie started we were caught up into the beautiful cinematography. So far so good. But as the story begun to unfold, and the characters revealed, we were a bit confused. Christopher Walken as an Irish farmer? A man who shoots his shotgun at the crows? A girl who thinks she’s a white swan? The dialogue was both funny and strange, witty and unrealistic. By the end of the movie I was left thinking, what was that?! And it might have been left there, forgotten, but for a nagging sense that there was something rather worthwhile in amongst the odd dialogue and narrow scope of the story.
The story may be summarized thus. Two farms next to each other; two families – the Reillys and the Muldoons. Tony Reilly (Walken) is old, but has doubts about passing the farm on to his bachelor son, Anthony (Jamie Dornan), who has some unknown mental issue which makes him a bit off. He thinks of selling to his American nephew Adam (Jon Hamm) instead. Mr. Muldoon, on the other hand, has passed away. His widow, Aoife, is growing older and will pass the farm down to her daughter Rosemarie (Emily Blunt). Rosemarie and Anthony have known each other since childhood, and are in love with each other, but Rosemarie is waiting for Anthony, who can’t bring himself to act on his feelings because of his mental oddity and his shyness.
My wife and I found ourselves quoting some of the more memorable lines over the next few weeks.
“That horse is Satan on four feet.”
“There’s no answer to blather like that.”
“I can’t stand a man with feelings.”
“A man with feelings should be put down!”
And so we found ourselves putting it on again, but only the scenes that we had thought amusing. We did this repeatedly – which is not normal for us – until we put the whole movie on again one night when the despair of scrolling through the nihilistic offerings of Netflix and Prime were too much.
When I realized the movie was based on a play, it started to make much more sense. The strength of the dialogue, the way the scenes were organized, the way the ending wrapped it all up and brought the whole cast – deceased or not – back on ‘stage.’ With repeated viewing came a richer appreciation for the layers folded into the story. Behind the witty repartees emerged some rather beautiful moments. In fact, the entire ethos of the movie emerged as pre-modern and redemptive, shining all the brighter for the rarity of this quality in all modern movies and shows. It lacked that ubiquitous characteristic of modern cinema: cynicism. Aside from a rather forgettable scene where a character unconnected to the rest of the story tells of having slept with a priest, there is a refreshing innocence to the sexual tension of the movie – which is a romance after all.
Perhaps this is best seen when Rosemarie visits New York city for a day and goes on a date with Adam, the American banker. At the end of the date he kisses her unexpectedly. “Oh my God,” she responds, “What did you do?“
“You know exactly what I did. And now being the gentleman that I am, I’m going to walk you back to your hotel.“
The scene then cuts to her traveling back to Ireland in a shocked stupor from that unexpected kiss, repeating “Oh my God” to herself as if she can’t quite believe it. (The movie, set in Catholic Ireland, has a lot of taking the Lord’s name in vain.) The audience is left with the impression that this was perhaps her very first kiss. But this seems unbelievable to a modern audience. A woman in her late 30’s with no previous sexual experience? The only time we are treated to such characters is to mock them, as in The 40-Year Old Virgin (which I have not seen). Innocence is a rare commodity in Hollywood, something which they seem to be incapable of imagining (which is also why Elf was so charming).
Rural life is presented as simple, difficult, and good. Natural beauty and the order of creation is both shown and described, as in this memorable line: “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… and lives off us maybe. Whatever that is… it holds me here.“
Even the American banker dreams of becoming an Irish farmer, as a kind of stand-in for all of us moderns who find ourselves longing for that simpler life and deeper connection to creation. But he can’t help importing his modern mindset, asking Rosemarie how many acres she has.
“I don’t know,” she replies with a shrug.
“How do you not know how many acres of land you own?” he asks, bewildered.
“Because it’s just a number.”
“I’m all about numbers. I manage money for a living.”
“Oh, does money need you to manage it?” she asks.
“I’m not sure,” he answers, after a thoughtful pause.
Lastly, there is a scene of reconciliation and redemption which has grown on me with each viewing. It happens as Tony is dying. He calls Anthony to him and they have a remarkable conversation the effect of which no description here will adequately reproduce. But one part of it speaks of Tony’s… conversion? It’s a kind of watershed moment in his life and marriage that he describes this way:
“Till one day… something gave way. Out in the fields in the wet grass the quiet hand of God touched me. Something came to save me. And it’ll come for you too. I can’t name the day the rain let up. The sun shone on me. And I started in singing. Just like that. That old song. Singing! In the field. Me.“
Well, just imagine Christopher Walken saying that with an attempt at an Irish accent. Like I said, it’s definitely a strange movie. But for a strange duck like me who despairs of Hollywood’s ability to capture the good, the true, and the beautiful, it has been a welcome surprise.