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Review: ‘The Journey’

dfn-the-journey-300Two 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.

Review: ‘Mr. Turner’

Timothy Spall in 'Mr. Turner' (Dallas Film Now)
Timothy Spall in ‘Mr. Turner’ (Dallas Film Now)

One of the methods filmmakers use to convey the tactile world of a painter is to blend the emotions of the original canvases onto the screen itself.

In Mr. Turner, British artist J.M.W Turner’s luminous works are viewed often, both in the creation stage and the finished end product as they hang for inspection in various darkrooms, museums and in the mind’s eye of the artist himself. We absorb them, become familiar with their ‘messy’ brushstrokes, and recoil at the process of their creation, involving a mixture of homemade oil coloring, pencil shavings and the artist’s own spit.

And since we’re so accustomed to the images on the canvas, director Mike Leigh continually amazes as his camera often captures the indelibility of these works. A close up of one painting’s white and blue oils innately leads into the next cut of the side of a mountain, observed now in real life, but almost unrecognizable to the viewer whether we’re seeing landscape art or reality. For an artist like Turner, this becomes an apt metaphor as he struggles for acceptance in the evolving nineteenth century art world and his own nonchalance for life outside his work.

Instead of a sweeping life long biopic, Mr. Turner wisely focuses on a small portion of his life as an already well established and respected artist in London. Living a fairly closed off life, we meet Turner (Timothy Spall) as he lives with his father (Paul Jesson), acting as the ultimate manservant for his son. Not only does he fetch supplies and chop wood, but he assumes the role of business manager when a group stops by their home to view or buy a painting.

Also in this hermetic world is Ms. Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), the lowly house servant, who also serves a dual role in a utilitarian mode and a sexual outlet for Turner when he finds the mood right. Atkinson gives a humbly moving performance in the way she quietly shuttles about the house, her facial expressions, oftentimes, being the rudder of reality in the face of pompous art talk or Turner’s melancholy moods.

Part of Turner’s Impressionistic inspiration lies in various trips he makes to the seaside town of Margate, where he meets and eventually falls in love with a landlady, named Ms. Booth (Marion Bailey). Shuffling back and forth between his duties to fellow artists and critics in London — who become increasingly cannibalistic as the film goes on — and his respites with Ms. Booth soon becomes the crux of the film.

Director Mike Leigh, known for his working class depictions of British life since the early 1970’s, initially seems like an odd choice for this Masterpiece Theater-type affair. Within minutes, those pre-conceived notions are obliterated as Spall embodies Turner as a wheezing figure, full of grunts and groans that emanate somewhere deep inside his stomach, serving as his all-encompassing response to most questions. It’s the slightest change of tone that spells affirmative or negative. He’s also a terrible father and ex-husband to his family, barely giving them the time of day when they visit to show off his new granddaughter. Like David Thewlis in Leigh’s groundbreaking film Naked (1991), Turner is a flawed, malignant presence to most people, saved only by his art.

Running at almost two and a half hours, Mr. Turner feels a bit long and redundant in certain sections, but its cumulative effect is undeniable. In one scene, Turner scoffs at the more realistic paintings now being hung for observation instead of his Impressionistic ones, and we sort of scoff alongside him. Old pioneers are being left behind, and as the film slowly reveals, that’s a lost art in itself.

The film is now playing at Landmark Magnolia and Angelika Plano.