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THE JOURNEY (2016) review

July 13, 2017

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written by: Colin Bateman
produced by: Mark Huffam, Nick Hamm and Piers Tempest
directed by: Nick Hamm
rated: PG-13 (for thematic elements including violent images and language)
runtime: 94 min.
U.S. release date: June 16, 2017 (limited) and July 7, 2017 (limited)

 

Young viewers and/or those who live outside of the UK may be unaware of The Troubles – the violent and volatile ethno-nationalist conflict that occurred in Northern Ireland during the late 20th century, fueled primarily by two polar-opposite political and nationalistic perspectives. “The Journey”, directed by Nick Hamm (“Killing Bono”) from a screenplay by gonzo journalist Colin Bateman, suggests that the two opposing political figures – the Democratic Unionist Party’s Dr. Ian Paisley and Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness – were The Troubles. The film offers an intriguing look at the historic moment in 2008 that marked the beginning of the end of this decades-long war, a time when the possibility for peace began and an inconceivable friendship was born. 

That being said, “The Journey” is a fictionalization of the agreement that took place for three days in October 2006 at St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland, which may rub some the wrong way. I have no problem with stories that embellish or imagine what transpired in real life, as long as the events and interactions feel real and that’s what is conveyed here. The story told is predominately set in a car ride that forces the two weary political figures to confront who they are, what they stand for and whether or not peace is possible through compromise. Such a setting is reminiscent of a stage production and it’s an approach that would certainly translate well to a theatrical presentation.

 

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It takes roughly fifteen minutes for Paisley (Timothy Spall) and McGuinness (Colm Meaney) to share an unplanned ride, driven by the unsuspecting Jack (Freddie Highmore), a young man assigned by a monitoring MI6 director Henry Patterson (the late John Hurt), and before we’re in the vehicle with these two figures, Hamm guides us through what such a summit would feel like, with both leader’s entourage double-checking their agendas, schedules and surroundings. There’s a cold sense of anticipation and trepidation in the air as both parties converge for the first time, leaving us to wonder how it is that both men have agreed to sit down with each other for the first tine ever.

That sit down never takes place, however. Blame it on the rain. When it is learned that possible bad weather could cancel his flight to Belfast, Paisley decides he needs to be driven to the airport early, so he won’t miss his 50th wedding anniversary party which is taking place that night. McGuinness takes the opportunity to invite himself along, knowing it’ll likely be the only chance he can get with the Paisley, who was leading the governing Protestant party in Northern Ireland. Along their journey, McGuinness initiates a dialogue that finds the two men gradually break down the decades-long barriers of hatred and resentment, coming to a realization that they’re not that different from each other, developing a unsuspecting path toward peace.

When they’re not thrillers, it’s hard to make politics a compelling cinematic experience, so it’s easy to see why Bateman’s screenplay hones in on this imagined conversation between Paisley and McGuinness and it helps that two excellent character actors such as Spall and Meaney can carry the film in such an effortless and compelling manner. Their great performances make up for certain elements of the overall narrative – like why the St. Andrews engagement was scheduled at the same time as Paisley’s anniversary party or the at-times jarring decision to go back to Hurt’s Patterson at St. Andrews, who is listening in on the car conversation with Tony Blair (Toby Stephens) and other officials – which come across as blatant dramatic albeit unnecessary devices.

There is one observation that Patterson makes that provides an interesting motivation for the peace talks between Paisley and McGuinness. He mentions to a subordinate how terrorism changed after 9/11, “terror has to be a Hollywood spectacular”,  which alludes to the fact that if the war continued, both sides would try to top the other with acts of violence. It’s an observation that drives home the importance and necessity for peace and it helps that it’s delivered with such knowing wisdom from a veteran actor like Hurt.

 

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The highlight of the film though is simply hanging out with Spall and Meaney. Spall masters the initial stubbornness of Paisley, while Meaney’s frustration rises as he does his best to break the ice with his opponent by mentioning such surface subjects like the weather and even arriving at a discussion of the career of Samuel L. Jackson circa 2006 (yes, “Snakes on a Plane” is mentioned). Little additions like this allow us to see these two men as normal guys, people we can relate too and understand. We know all too well that a difficult conversation has to start somewhere.

It becomes quite obvious that Hamm is more interested in building the journey of “The Journey” more than anything else. There has to be a struggle, a tug-of-war between Paisley and McGuinness at first, or else it would undermine the years of opposition between them. They slowly become aware that pointing fingers will get them nowhere and when the two characters begin to listen and allow the other to breathe, the vulnerabilities can be seen, which is when Spall and Meaney (both of whom are often unfairly underrared) really shine. With this role, Spall reminds us he can do anything – just think back to his work in “Mr. Turner” or the “Harry Potter” movies and then look at his physicality here. He’s a chameleon. Meaney digs deep into the role of McGuinness, which finds the actor battling with the character’s own internal sorrow and outward determination. Watching the two of them work together is an absolute joy to watch, as if both are impressed with the other.

Needless to say, “The Journey” winds up being an important lesson and sadly a timely tale that unfortunately feels timeless. Some may take issue with the approach of an imagined misadventure and exchange between the two characters, but Hamm mostly succeeds in offering a compelling and relatable story that transcends politics. Two opposing forces can’t continue on such a path forever and watching Paisley and McGuinness arrive at this realization is the real treat of this film.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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