I learned something new while watching director Nick (Killing Bono) Hamm’s The Journey: there’s poetic license and then there’s “This story images that journey.” In other words, this isn’t what happened, but it’s what writer Colin Bateman thinks about when he closes his eyes and imagines an overly simplified, slightly sitcom-ish version of the events that led the St. Andrews Agreement that finally brought peace to Northern Ireland in 2006. I suspect that even if the negotiations that brought about that peace were as dry as a bone and completely lacking any form of drama, it still would have been more interesting than this weirdly paced, strangely toned alternative history.
The one thing I can’t fault the film for is the cast. Fresh off his performance as a real-life, equally unlikeable Holocaust denier in Denial last year, Timothy Spall plays staunch British loyalist Rev. Ian Paisley, who often spoke against Ireland having any voice in UK politics. With a booming voice and a mouthful of oversized teeth, both of which make him sound a great deal like the late Angus Scrimm, Spall is set up to be the immovable wall of a politician who only sees the IRA as terrorists rather than soldiers in a civil war. Colm Meaney plays the recently departed Martin McGuinness, the representative of Sinn Féin (the political wing of the IRA), who seems all too aware that no amount of group discussion is going to solve this problem. So when both parties arrive at St. Andrews in Scotland, thinks seem doomed from the start.
But a few key players (including McGuinness) have a few tricks up their sleeves. When Paisley asks if he may leave the negotiations early on the first day to attend his 50th wedding anniversary party, McGuinness insists that they follow the letter of the rules of the gathering stating that one member of the opposing side must travel if a member of the other side leaves the conference. And this sets up a long limo ride to the airport with just McGuinness and Paisley alone in the back, or so they think.
Obviously, there’s a driver, and his name is Jack (Freddie Highmore, from “Bates Motel”), and it turns out he’s a bit of a talker, and he begins chatting up his silent riders, which in turn sparks the two politicians to begin conversing with each other. What these two enemies don’t realize is that there are cameras in the car, capturing their every move and sending the images to a team of MI5 agents, led by supervisor Harry Patterson (one of the final on-screen performances of John Hurt), as well as leaders from both sides of this conflict, including then Prime Minister Tony Blair (Toby Stephens) and Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams (Ian Beattie), all of whom seem keenly aware that the only possible chance of a peace accord is if these two men reach an agreement during this car ride.
Now let me make this perfectly clear: the idea of having Spall and Meaney in a car talking for 90 minutes sounds fine by me, no matter the subject matter. But having them play the architects of the peace to end The Troubles in Northern Ireland sounds positively riveting. But the conversation in The Journey is a fiction, as is a strange blown tire they have on the road to the airport that leaves them stranded at an ancient church talking quite heatedly about the bombing at Enniskillen during a remembrance day parade (during the course of the movie, they also broach the subjects of hunger strikes and Bloody Sunday, as you might expect). And while I adore the idea of hearing these two fine actor go at each other nearly to blows, so much of their conversation feels like a history lesson mixed with conspiracy theories and fairy tales.
Far worse are the reactions of the team waiting back at St. Andrews, practically fist bumping an high fiving each other every time the monitors show the two men getting along and the talks progress. And as you might expect (if you know history), the two men did reach an understanding, whether it happened in that car or not, I don’t know. But director Hamm’s account, even if it’s 100 percent accurate (which it isn’t) feel written not lived. The fact that the two men became friends, co-workers, and were frequently referred to as “The Chuckle Brothers” in real life (according to a closing title card) doesn’t alter the artificiality of The Journey, and no amount of fine acting can change that. I can certainly see audience members on both sides of this struggle being offended by this telling of these events. I had no horse in this race, and even I felt oddly disloyal watching—not to one side or the other, but to the truth.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.