Colin Bateman enters into Peter Morgan territory—a speculative look at modern British history—with “The Journey,” which imagines how agreement for a unity government for Northern Ireland—and a final end to The Troubles—might finally have been achieved at the St. Andrews summit of 2006 not across a long conference table but in a car transporting Protestant champion Ian Paisley and Sinn Fein MP (and former IRA leader) Martin McGuinness to an airport in Edinburgh.
The premise of Bateman’s script is that the summit presided over by British PM Tony Blair (Toby Stephens), which lasted from October 11 to 14, intersected with the October 13 fiftieth wedding anniversary of Paisley (Timothy Spall), the head of the Democratic Unity Party who refused to negotiate with Sinn Fein members he saw as murderers, and Paisley insisted on being back in Belfast for the celebration. The only way to meet his demand, because of bad weather, was to drive him to Edinburgh, where he could catch a flight home. McGuinness (Colm Meaney), sensing an opportunity for a breakthrough, insisted on accompanying him, and MI5, under the guidance of a long-time Irish expert named Patterson (John Hurt), arranged to have one of their agents (Freddie Highmore) take the wheel in the guise of a simple Scottish driver, prolong the journey and prod the two men to whittle away at the wall between them.
It’s rather an absurd conceit, which inserts into a historical context what’s essentially a dramatic cliché: stick two enemies into a confined space and watch as they gradually come to understand each other’s point of view and recognize their common humanity. It’s hard to swallow that scenario when applied to an hour-long trip by two men trapped by such long hostility as Paisley and McGuinness (especially the former, an eighty-year old with deep-rooted prejudices and apparently impervious to argument)—especially since, for dramatic purposes, Bateman must add episodes (a drive through a forest, a minor accident, a walk through the woods, a visit to an abandoned church and its adjacent cemetery) that could not possibly happen without extending the trip well beyond the time that we’re told the car must arrive at the airport for Paisley to make the flight.
That hardly matters, though, because you’re likely to be so engrossed in watching the superb cast enjoying themselves that you’ll happily overlook the implausibility of it all. Especially now that he’s gone, one cannot help but appreciate the beautifully world-weary mien that Hurt brings to Patterson, and Highmore adds a note of geeky awkwardness to the driver that’s very ingratiating. Even compared to Michael Sheen, Toby Stephens does a great Blair, flashing the right toothy smile as he tries to please everybody within earshot at any given moment while things reach critical mass.
But it’s the two stars who make “The Journey” such a winning one. Meaney brings his customary brash manner to McGuinness, alternately wheedling and justifying himself as he attempts to break through to a man who appears to be impervious to cajoling. It would be easy to underestimate his contribution, especially in comparison to the heavily made-up Spall, whose impersonation of Paisley is a masterpiece of commingled malevolence and poignancy. You cannot take your eyes off Spall, but without Meaney to provide counterpoint to him, as it were, Spall might come across as entirely too much.
Director Nick Hamm is wise enough to avoid fussiness and simply allow the two to joust, and cinematographer Greg Gardiner and editor Chris Gillis manage to present them simply, yet with enough variety of perspective to keep the picture from becoming static. They get a bit more intrusive in the scenes focused on Stephens, Highmore and Hurt, though here too the main emphasis is on the acting rather than elaborate cinematic technique.
“The Journey” plays into an idea we’d all like to have about political problems—that if only the people on different sides could be brought to sit down and genuinely talk to one another, they’d see their way to compromise and wind up shaking hands over a deal that didn’t seem remotely reachable. It’s a wonderful dream, but one that we know is just that; the St. Andrews accord, after all, came after many years of not just antagonism and violence but diplomatic negotiation and maneuvering, and represented the result of exhaustion as much as anything else.
Yet Paisley and McGuinness did come together in a 2007 power-sharing scheme that was a watershed, and by all accounts—as the film notes—worked together harmoniously, even becoming friends in the process. So while the film is undoubtedly simplistic and fictional, it speaks to high aspirations while acknowledging the messiness of politics—and because of its superlative cast, it’s also great fun.