Ireland's 'Troubles' problematically settled in a car in The Journey

By Karen Gordon

With its mix of history and fiction, The Journey is an odd, sometimes underwhelming, yet strangely affecting movie.

Set in 2006, the two men at the heart of this road film held the immediate fate of Northern Ireland in their hands. The first was the loyalist firebrand, founder of the Democratic Union Party, andanti-Catholic Presbyterian the Reverend Ian Paisley, played by the superb character actor Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner, Denial).

The other was IRA-member-turned-Sinn-Fein Catholic politician Martin McGuinness, played by Colm Meaney (Layer Cake, The Commitments, Star Treks: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine). That the two enemies were ultimately able to overcome their immense differences and enact a workable solution to “the Troubles,” is widely considered to be a model of what is possible for the world’s hot spots.

But how did they get to that point?

Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney as Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness in The Journey

Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney as Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness in The Journey

What’s true is this: In 2006, the British government of Tony Blair got the two sides to agree to meet once more to see if they could work out a deal for lasting peace and find a way forward.  They assembled in Scotland.  And then Rev. Paisley announced that he’d like to take a break so he could go home for the night to join celebrations to mark his 50th wedding anniversary.

McGuinness agreed on the condition that he’d go with Paisley. According to the film, this was a common practice, the theory being that this would prevent assassinations.

The two traveled together in a private jet. Did they talk? If so, about what?  In preparation for the film, director Nick Hamm (Killing Bono) and writer Colin Bateman (Wild About Harry) interviewed a number of people, including McGuinness (who died earlier this year) and Rev. Paisley’s son, who stayed behind at the conference while his father went to mark his anniversary. But he couldn’t get a consensus on what was said. 

So, based on what they knew of the two men, Hamm and Bateman departed from fact and created a fictional situation to explore what might have brought the two enemies together. 

In “The Journey” the two men are put together in a van for the lengthy drive to the airport.

Unbeknownst to both, the arrangement has been engineered by a high ranking M15 operative Harry Anderson, (played by John Hurt, in one of his final performances). The vehicle is rigged with cameras so Anderson and his team can watch. And the driver, Jack (Freddie Highmore), is actually an agent wearing an ear-piece so he can get instructions from his boss.

Jack also is tasked with making the kind of annoying small talk that is designed to get the two men to forget about politics and just start to talk.

But that is going to prove near impossible. 

Putting the men together in the confined space of a car is a serious point of tension for them. McGuinness has never been able to get Rev Paisley to agree to meet face to face.

Reverend Paisley will barely look at McGuinness, who he considers to be a murderer and, of course, a Catholic. 

McGuinness is more progressive and more determined to chip away at the resistant and belligerent man sitting next to him. Why? As Harry Anderson (Hurt)  tells  the jumpy, bumbly Tony Blair (Toby Stephens), there’s a point where a man tires of war and starts to think about his legacy.

At about 90 minutes, The Journey is not a long movie, and that’s a good thing. There isn’t much of a meeting of the minds.  For most of the film McGuinness patiently ignores false starts, insults, and attempts to woo his stubborn and resistant nemesis, a man of few words (most of which are not pleasant).  Both men have sinned against the other in different ways, but one is more ready than the other to admit it. 

There is little set up. Hurt’s character serves as a kind of Greek Chorus, letting us know where we are and why. He also calms down the stakeholders, including Blair who, as portrayed here, seems more like a terrified schoolboy than a major political leader.

The two men did come together in the end, so the idea of exploring what might have happened is an interesting but risky idea. This is recent history and there are people who knew and worked with the men, so the script treads very carefully. 

Still, one wishes that the script had more meat on its bones. It doesn’t dive very deep.

One man comes across as capable of reflection and forward thinking, while the other seems committed to a sense of infallibility mired in his own beliefs. What actually changes Rev. Paisley’s mind and heart isn’t clear. Nor is it in the script.  Instead it’s in the subtleties of Spall’s portrayal that you find the clues.  

These two weren’t just enemies. They were politicians, and negotiators, neither likely to show his hand to the other.   And that, combined with the fact that it’s fiction, makes “The Journey” a bit of a strange beast. So what are we really watching here, and can it have any real meaning if it’s a guess?
And yet, in spite of its credulity strains,  “The Journey” is not unpleasant and surprisingly moving. 

The message is clear.  If these two bitter foes can achieve some kind of common ground, maybe there is hope for the other trouble spots in the world. 

The Journey. Directed by Nick Hamm. Starring Timothy Spall, Colm Meaney and John Hurt. Opens Friday July 7 in Toronto (Varsity), Vancouver and Montreal, and selected other Canadian cities through the summer  

Karen Gordon

Karen Gordon is a freelance writer/broadcaster who reviews movies Fridays on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning. She’s covered him, music and popular culture for 20 years in radio, TV and print. She's also a creative producer, series story editor and writer for documentary/lifestyle TV and is the co-writer of two award-winning cookbooks, David Rocco’s Dolce Vita and Made in Italy. Karen still gets a thrill when the lights go down and the movie begins.