The Journey

The-Journey-rev The Journey  (2017)    IFC Films/Drama    RT: 94 minutes    Rated PG-13 (thematic elements, violent images, language)    Director: Nick Hamm    Screenplay: Colin Bateman    Music: Stephen Warbeck    Cinematography: Greg Gardiner    Release date: June 30, 2017 (Philadelphia, PA)    Cast: Timothy Spall, Colm Meaney, Freddie Highmore, John Hurt, Toby Stephens, Ian Beattie, Catherine McCormack, Ian McElhinney, Barry Ward.

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 I got a bad feeling about The Journey when it informed us in the opening titles that it “imagines” the journey undertaken by Reverend Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness to resolve their differences stemming from “The Troubles” that plagued Northern Ireland for nearly 30 years. It “imagines”? Is that what you call it? I call it reducing one of the most significant historical events of the 21st century- i.e. the St. Andrew’s Agreement of 2006- to an Odd Couple/road trip movie. My question is this, why not tell the actual story as it really happened? I’m sure it’s far more interesting than the fabrication that is The Journey.

The-Journey For those don’t already know going in, The Journey begins by telling us who the two main characters are. Paisley (1926-2014) was the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and a staunch Protestant known for his strong anti-Catholic views. In 1988, he famously denounced Pope John Paul II as “the Antichrist” during a meeting of European Parliament. McGuinness (1950-2017) was a former IRA commander who became a Sinn Fein leader. He was involved with the IRA when Bloody Sunday went down in 1972. The Journey ends with a closing shot of a photograph depicting one of the most ironic moments in recent history, McGuinness shaking hands with Queen Elizabeth. Who thought that would ever happen?

 Colin Bateman’s screenplay is basically a history rewrite. The road trip NEVER happened. Yet he would have us believe, at least for the duration of The Journey, that Paisley (Spall, Denial) and McGuinness (Meaney, The Commitments) shared a ride to an Edinburgh airport so Paisley could make it to his 50th wedding anniversary celebration on time. Because of some law regarding the safety and well-being of political leaders, the two men have to travel together. In all the years they’ve been in the spotlight, they’ve neither met nor exchanged a single word yet they despise each other for their political views. Now they’re going to be trapped together in a car for an hour; it’s the ideal opportunity for the two men to finally bury the hatchet. So says British PM Tony Blair (Stephens, Die Another Day) and MI5 chief Harry Patterson (the late John Hurt in one of his final roles). They rig the vehicles with hidden cameras so they monitor their progress from mission control… I mean, St. Andrews. They also have an MI5 agent (Highmore, all grown up from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) posing as their driver. His job is to get the two men talking and steer them towards some common ground. He’s outfitted with a Bluetooth through which his superiors whisper suggestions.

 At first, a scowling Paisley sits in stony silence as an affable McGuinness tries to engage him in small talk. The devout Protestant has nothing to say to his sworn Catholic enemy which begs the question of what the Bible says about loving thine enemy. Even he finally deigns to speak to his unwelcome travelling companion, it’s to pass judgment for his past murderous actions. Eventually, McGuinness gets Paisley to laugh but that’s just the first step. There’s still a long way to go until they reach some sort of understanding. We know this will happen. In ’07, Paisley and McGuinness were elected First Minister and First Deputy Minister of Northern Ireland respectively. They came to be known in the press as “The Chuckle Brothers”, a moniker that reflects their good working relationship.

 The road trip in The Journey is like any other, fraught with mishaps and delays. A detour through a forest results in a flat tire; the agent has no idea how to change one. There’s also some credit card trouble at a petrol station. All seems lost until Paisley steps in and saves the day with a fiery sermon directed at the bewildered cashier. I never knew preaching was a super power. Should we call him Fire-and-Brimstone Man? I jest, of course.

 The Journey isn’t without its strong points. Spall gives a bold, unsparing performance as Paisley, a judgmental, inflammatory and much-despised man who has a Bible verse for every occasion. He doesn’t even try to make Paisley appear sympathetic. When McGuinness tearfully describes how a 1987 bombing affected his young daughter, Paisley angrily shuts him down and reminds him that actual people died, why should he care about what it did to his daughter emotionally. He also gives the larger-than-life figure a measure of vulnerability by depicting him as frail and decrepit. You might be tempted to accuse Spall of overacting but I’m told that Paisley was like this in real life. Meaney’s performance, on the other hand, isn’t so good. He’s never believable as McGuinness. He portrays him as a nice guy sort who tries to make Paisley open up.  He’s more like a life coach or TV psychologist than a former terrorist leader.

 A movie about the resolution of the situation in Northern Ireland is long overdue. With The Journey, we’re now waiting for a good movie. Not that The Journey is entirely bad. It’s not. It’s an okay movie. It contains tremendous individual scenes. The conversations between the two men tend to be fascinating especially when they get into it about the use of violence as a means to an end. But the overall scenario, in addition to being fictitious, is also implausible. In real life, an operation of this magnitude would never be handled as shoddily as it is here. You would think that officials would immediately send help after the deer causes the driver to have an accident (that’s how they get the flat tire) or when his credit card is declined. At the very least, they’d give him cash in case of an emergency. They’re pretty lax in protecting two such important men; if something happens to either one, all hell will break loose. For all its good intentions, The Journey is a huge disappointment. It does, however, leave the door open for a more ambitious filmmaker to make a movie about how the St. Andrew’s Agreement really happened. 

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