Director Nick Hamm has that Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness in the back of his cab in The Journey, imagining a spellbinding road trip that might have triggered their bromance in government in Northern Ireland.
The Odd Coupleby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
in 2006, Northern Ireland peace talks took place in Scotland, in a summit that led to the historic clinching of the St Andrews Agreement. The Journey imagines a conversation that took place between the two polar opposites who symbolised the warring sides, and without whose agreement nothing would be achieved. Heavyweight Protestant preacher Ian Paisley, the DUP leader, and former IRA commander turned member of parliament Martin McGuinness were sworn enemies who had barely, if at all, ever spoken to each other before. In the reluctant intimacy of a car journey together to Edinburgh airport, it’s imagined that they are forced to talk to each other. And, by doing so, they start to see each other as human beings and they begin as well the metaphorical journey of breaking down the barriers between them that will enable the peace process.
The wide-ranging dialogue put into the mouths of the two men is initially hostile, yet increasingly full of heart and humour. Both are played by actors at the top of their game. As Paisley, Timothy Spall contorts his mouth of prominent teeth into an uncanny resemblance to the big man, and his thundering Ulster accent is mostly spot on. As on his dignity as an Old Testament prophet in the passenger seat next to his enemy, at first he rebuffs the conversational overtures of the more nimble and mischievous McGuinness (Colm Meaney). As the dialogue between them grows, it can be at times full-on explanatory – and also incendiary as they touch on the issues of terrorism or freedom fighting as each views them and that divide them. But there are flashes of shared humanity in some topics – such as when McGuinness prompts Paisley to reminisce about his first meeting with his wife of 50 years, and they potentially find common ground in admitting they are both men of faith, however different. And they unexpectedly bond with shared jokes over some habitual Irish speech patterns.
Meanwhile, it’s revealed that their situation is a set-up being observed though cameras concealed in the car by M15 (wily veteran operator John Hurt in his last role), Tony Blair (Toby Stephens as a vacillating, oleaginous Tony Blair, agreeing with both sides), Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern (Mark Lambert), a protesting Gerry Adams (Ian Beattie) and various others who stumble into the control room in the hotel where all are based, including an anxious Ian Paisley Junior (Barry Ward). They form an audience that watches the progress of the rapprochement between the two figureheads with bated breath as if they were egging on mating pandas. Even their apparently naive young driver (Freddie Highmore) is an MI5 plant, receiving instructions though an earpiece to spin out the ride to give the two men more time together to increase the chance of an agreement. And an unexpected hazard obligingly strands the two men temporarily in a forest, where their debate continues in a deserted church – with Paisley in the pulpit of course.
It’s an encounter that never happened, although you can’t help feeling that this is how it should have been. Those who know the history well may quibble at the liberties screenwriter Colin Bateman has taken with the facts. But, coming to it fresh, it’s gripping and entertaining. In real life thereafter, as First Minister and his Deputy, Paisley and McGuinness did achieve a remarkably friendly relationship, and were nicknamed the Chuckle Brothers, so this is an insight, however fictional, into how that transformation might have been achieved. Though the film would work equally as a two-handed stage or radio play, director Nick Hamm has opened it out with changes of location into a mixture of thriller and character study.
It has the feel of a valedictory. As Blair says, at St Andrews there was urgent need is to capitalise on a brief moment in time when both men were tired of the long struggle and were looking to their legacy and how they would be remembered in future – Paisley was 81 at the time. It was no country for old men and it’s even more poignant now that both protagonists have died – McGuinness suddenly just recently – and, of course, actor John Hurt too. It’s a film that gives enormous opportunities to its lead actors to make the most of the shades of meaning and wit of its script and they take full advantage of them – both give memorable performances. Meaney as McGuinness lets us see how his change of heart came upon him and Spall vents fully in a right-between-the-eyes biblical rant to a hapless salesperson. It’s fascinating, absorbing and ultimately amazingly feel good.
The Journey is released on 5 May 2017 in the UK.