Dramatising history can be a daunting enough task for any filmmaker, aware that the final version will always be picked apart at the seams for inaccuracies or perceived bias. Taking the extra step to fictionalise the past becomes even more complicated, although recent films such as Jackie and Neruda perhaps suggest a way to navigate the minefield. Director Nick Hamm’s The Journey takes a trip down this path too, in a film that celebrates the unlikely real-life friendship that developed between Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness.
Despite being a 40 year civil war that took the lives of thousands of people, the Troubles in Northern Ireland always remained a localised conflict. With the film being seen on a global scale, overcoming this problem was a dilemma Hamm had to solve. Instead of lecturing the audience or attempting to dissect the complicated layers of their political past, the director draws on the dynamic of the two men overcoming their extreme personal differences.
Taking us back to 2006 in St Andrews, Scotland, Protestant Rev Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall) and his Ulster Union party were due to sit down with their hated enemy, Sinn Féin, led by Martin McGuinness (Meaney). Tony Blair (Toby Stephens) had made peace in Northern Ireland a key objective for his Government, and the meeting ultimately led to the historic St Andrews Agreement being signed. In this version of events, Paisley has to leave the meeting to attend his 50th wedding anniversary back in Ulster, and Sinn Féin protocol insists that McGuinness accompany him to avoid any assassination attempt. They head off to the airport in the back of a car, chauffeured by undercover British security agent Jack (Freddie Highmore).
Of course, the historic agreement was thrashed out in a much more conventional manner than this film suggests. The original idea came from the story of how the two men shared a private jet together, travelling in a plane that was rented from Chris de Burgh (I kid ye not). It works best when they are left to their own devices, poking at each other through thinly veiled hatred. Colin Bateman’s script offers plenty of moments of levity to lift the heavy mood as a number of pit-stops are made en-route. They stretch their legs in woodland nearby, step inside a small church and pause for a petrol refill along the way, diverted by Blair and co. in an attempt to force them to spend more time travelling together.
Spall is magnificent as Paisley, recalling his booming accent and ailing physicality, that recognisable fire still burning behind his ageing eyes. Meaney is equally as strong as McGuiness, slowly cajoling his opponent into a position where an agreement could be reached. Both actors had to walk a tightrope in their performances given the sensitivity of the subject. Spall in particular plays a man who while revered and hated in equal measure, was instantly recognisable to everyone. That he avoids a mere impersonation of Paisley speaks volumes for his performance.
Where the film isn’t so successful are the diversions back and forth between the two men on the road and back at St Andrews, where Blair and the two Northern Irish parties anxiously listen in. Spall and Meaney help us buy into the premise but the opposite can be said about the second location. It was also one of John Hurt’s last appearances onscreen, so it is a shame he didn’t have more to do than provide occasional vocal commentary.
The good intentions of the film are obvious and that, along with two fantastic performances, will help it find a wider audience. What Paisley and McGuinness managed to achieve does deserve to be celebrated, given how much had to be overcome to allow them speak to one another, let alone anything else. The spirit of the two men lives on thanks to considered performances and a script that just about strikes the right balance.
Read TDF’s interview with the film’s director Nick Hamm and one of its leading actors, Timothy Spall here: The Journey
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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