Film Review: The Journey

Cleverly tweaked rendering of how the two opposing lead players in the near-40 year-long Northern Ireland “troubles” reached the historic 2006 accord benefits from the fine performances and plausible “what-if” at the narrative’s heart.
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With The Journey, the road pic travels to the higher elevations of rewarding political drama, thanks largely to having acclaimed Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner, Denial) as the deeply conservative, religious Protestant Northern Ireland leader Sir Ian Paisley and ubiquitous Irish actor Colm Meaney (Star Trek, Con Air) as fiery Irish Republican Army leader/militant Martin McGuinness literally in the passenger seats as bitter longtime adversaries under U.K. pressure to come to terms.

Already anointed as official selections at the 2016 Venice and Toronto Fests, the film, beautifully lensed in Scotland by Greg Gardiner and populated with important subsidiary characters on the order of British Prime Minister Tony Blair (Toby Stephens), The Journey looms a best-bet package for a predictable slice among serious filmgoers. But no Ladbrokes bets laid regarding how many among the “lads” will turn out.

Titles and stills set up some major historic aspects of the “troubles” that lead up to the film’s Paisley/McGuinness confrontation. The story begins in a St. Andrews, Scotland hotel where the Northern Ireland peace talks are taking place and where hopes are that the vehemently anti-Catholic, anti I.R.A. Paisley will soften in negotiations with McGuinness so decades of death and violence might end.

Among those gathered are Blair; British Intelligence’s MI5 big shot Harry Patterson (the late John Hurt, in one of his final roles), who must monitor how the talks are going; I.R.A. firebrand and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams (Ian Beattie); Paisley’s son Ian Paisley, Jr. (Barry Ward) and the then Irish Republic Prime Minister Bertie Ahern (Mark Lambert).

The film’s what-if imaginings land early when word spreads of “a bit of a situation” because the nearby Glasgow airport is closed and a car must hurry to get Paisley to the Edinburgh airport in time to catch the plane to his 50th-anniversary celebration. McGuinness sees an opportunity and insists he accompany the impossibly recalcitrant Northern Ireland statesman with whom he’s forced to negotiate.

Their driver, through heavy rains, threatening clouds and the beautiful Scottish countryside (aerial shots abound), is young Jack (Freddie Highmore), who plays a naive local lad but turns out to be more than that. The journey begins and largely remains a grim affair for the two political leaders as Paisley remains uncommunicative and McGuinness tries to humor him. In a ticking-clock situation, they travel through detours and endure a car breakdown that forces them to roam through a forest and old church ruin. Paisley eventually starts to soften and McGuinness’ wit sharpens. All the while, much of what transpires in the car is monitored back in St. Andrews by the anxious British higher-ups. When the two adversaries finally communicate, their radically different personalities come to the fore and the staunch, prejudiced Paisley is certainly the least pretty.

The film enriches this encounter and underscores the importance of a rapprochement with well-chosen archival material and references to the “troubles” (Bobby Sands’ hunger strike, the infamous Bloody Sunday massacre, etc.). Though mainly a two-hander, this journey is fortunately in the hands of Spall and Meaney, who both shine (once you get past stony Paisley’s scowls and squints of rigidity and implacability). Happily, this journey is warmed by McGuinness’s cheery Irish nature and Highmore’s impish if devious charm.

Although the historic ending is a well-recorded chapter of modern history, The Journey makes getting to its own ending—even as it deftly fabricates many details—quite intriguing. Some historians may balk, but audiences won’t. Because the seemingly resolved “troubles” once stirred so much passion for so long on both sides, it will be interesting to see what reactions are stirred.

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