Nick Hamm, director
Colin Bateman, script
Starring: Timothy Spall (Dr. Ian Paisley), Colm Meaney (Martin McGuinness), Toby Stephens (Tony Blair), Freddie Highmore (Jack), John Hurt (Harry Patterson), Ian Beattie (Gerry Adams), Catherine McCormack (Kate Elgar)
Zoomers will recall the “Troubles,” that terrifying period when Northern Ireland erupted into violence for a 30-year period, from 1968 to 1998, but many younger people won’t. To overly simplify a complex situation, the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, represented to some extent by the IRA (Irish Republican Army) and the Sinn Fein, engaged in a civil war against a Protestant majority, which responded through the British army, various Ulster paramilitary groups such as the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force, and the rhetoric of Presbyterian minister Ian Paisley. During this time, over 3500 people died and an estimated 50,000 were injured—a huge total, given that the population was approximately 1.5 million.
The Journey, directed by Northern Irish filmmaker Nick Hamm and scripted by his compatriot, novelist Colin Bateman, dramatizes the end of the conflict, when Sinn Fein’s Michael McGuinness supported by the IRA’s Gerry Adams, was finally able to achieve a peace agreement with Ian Paisley, whose still-extant Democratic Unionist Party has recently struck a deal with Prime Minister Theresa May to keep the Tories in power in the UK. The peace accord, called the Good Friday Agreement, finally ended the “Troubles.”
In the film, the agreement between McGuinness and Paisley, who were bitter enemies, was made possible by a long drive to the Edinburgh airport taken by the two so that Paisley could fly out to celebrate his golden wedding anniversary in Northern Ireland with his wife and friends. (McGuinness insisted on taking the trip so that Paisley’s safety would be ensured.) Of course, the journey is fictional but the idea of the two finally breaking down barriers built by prejudice and hatred is powerful.
The attraction in The Journey is watching the performances of two expert character actors, Colm Meaney and Timothy Spall. Each is brilliant. Meaney, most famous for his role as Miles O’Brian in two long running Star Trek TV series, and Spall, the Cannes winner as painter J.M.W. Turner in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, are superb as respectively, McGuinness and Paisley. Meaney’s McGuinness fights to, as he says, “break the ice” with Paisley, which gives Spall the power to slowly accept the entreaties of his Catholic rival. There’s much bating between the two as the story slowly builds to an inevitable acceptance of each other.
The Journey was clearly influenced by scriptwriter Peter Morgan’s huge successes with The Queen, The Special Relationship and now, with The Crown. But Bateman, an accomplished novelist, clearly struggled where Morgan has soared: it isn’t easy to create a drama about real people like Tony Blair, Princess Diana and Queen Elizabeth—or Paisley and McGuinness. Too much of The Journey feels like a dramatist searching for set pieces. There are some wonderful moments: Spall as Paisley recalling how he first met his wife; Meaney’s McGuinness speaking about how hard it was to justify some of the IRA killings to his daughter. But the film feels forced, particularly the elaborate device of having an MI5 agent driving their car, provoking conversations between the two, while sending back a video feed to Blair, Gerry Adams and Northern Ireland’s Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern. “As if,” the kids would say these days. Or, as we Zoomers might say, “it ain’t necessarily so.”
Is The Journey a hit or a miss? If you love great acting or are fascinated by the Troubles, the film is a must-see. Otherwise, you can catch it on Netflix or cable TV soon enough.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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