Two men, one vehicle, a ride to the airport. What can possibly be accomplished on such a short trip, except, maybe, the end to The Troubles?
Beginning in Northern Ireland during the late 1960s, the conflict appears to be far too complicated to sum up in just a few words, but Nick Hamm’s film The Journey begins with exactly that sort of brief overview, presented on title cards over news footage.
In 2006, negotiations were ongoing in Scotland to resolve differences between the two largest — and opposing — political parties, represented here by Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall) and Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness (Colm Meaney). The thrust of the negotiations had to do with how power could be shared in Northern Ireland.
At a tipping point in the negotiations, Paisley, an extremely conservative, very religious British loyalist, wanted to celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary at a gathering in Belfast, which would require a one-hour trip to an airport and a flight home.
McGuinness, reportedly a former leader in the Irish Republican Army who wanted nothing more than to see Ireland reunited, inveigled himself along on the road trip. He holds out hope that he can come to some kind of understanding with Paisley, who has never even deigned McGuiness worthy of speaking to in any capacity.
Now, what happens on the trip is entirely fictional, as created by writer Colin Bateman, an Irish novelist and screenwriter, and also a former journalist. The idea behind it appears to be: ‘Boil down the antagonism between the two men, which built in intensity over several decades, and see if there’s any way they can come to an agreement without compromising their fierce-held principles.’
The prospect of spending 94 minutes in a van with two politicians may not sound very enticing. Yet it proves to be a compelling experience, thanks to the imaginative approach taken by director Hamm, based on Bateman’s original script, and the superb performances by Spall and Meaney.
The film sets up counterpoints for the charged conversation that eventually breaks out between Paisley and McGuinness, first by establishing longtime negotiator Harry Patterson, portrayed beautifully and elegantly by John Hurt in one of his last roles, in a command room in Scotland.
From there, Patterson provides running commentary on the journey, and also ruminates sadly on all the sad consequences of the long-running conflict. He also interacts with Prime Minister Tony Blair (Toby Stephens), who functions almost as comic relief, with the typical interjections and concerns of a very recognizable politician; Stephens plays him with very light and broad strokes, so that he expresses common concerns as a befuddled man in the middle.
The second counterpoint is that Patterson has arranged for young Jack (Freddie Highmore) to serve as driver, though his true motivations and assignment are a bit more devious. Jack is meant to encourage the two men in the back of the van to talk, and he constantly must work to keep them talking while not making his interventions sound too obviously.
Certain obstacles arise that serve to extend the talks between the two men, but what’s most fascinating about the script is that it remains so fresh and conversational. Spall is portraying an 81-year-old man with an unbreakable conscience and damning judgments, which he’s ready to share when finally forced to do so. Meaney, who is nearly always likable in his roles even when his characters are not, here evinces a rock-hard personality who nonetheless is willing to swallow a lot of cod in order to achieve his goals.
The Journey is almost like a stage play in motion, yet it’s also very much a cinematic version of what might have been, speeding through the rain and gloom and sheer beauty of the Scottish countryside as lives hang in the balance, not so far away. It is a most unusual, and very rewarding, road trip movie.
The film opens at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas on Friday, July 7.