“The Troubles” that plagued Ireland for decades are one of the darkest and most fascinating periods of that storied land’s history. The fact that peace was reached at all was remarkable and how it happened is an intriguing question. ‘The Journey’ hopes to provide answers through a fictionalized conversation between the two leaders on both sides of the violent divide. The film may have been produced with the best of intentions and performed with passion and talent, but it sadly just never quite rises above its didactic and awkwardly dramatized script.
The film takes place during the peace talks that finally brought an end to the Troubles in Ireland. However, rather than focusing on any of the documented events or firsthand accounts, the movie spirals off into a weird fictionalized revision of history. In this bizarre variation on actual events, MI-6 chief Harry Patterson (John Hurt) decides that the best way to get the butting heads in Ireland to get along is to force them to be alone together in a politicized Odd Couple scenario. In the middle of the talks, he arranges for UK Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall) and IRA political figurehead Martin McGuinness (Colm Meaney) to be in the same car driving to the same airport at the same time. The vehicle is filled with cameras so that Patterson and Tony Blair (Toby Stephens) can watch. The driver is a secret agent playing dumb. At first, the two men barely speak. Then Patterson manufactures a minor accident to delay the journey. Wouldn’t ya know it, over the course of the high stress trek, the two guys who seemed incapable of ever finding peace somehow make it happen!
The film is obviously a strained faux history lesson that needlessly simplifies both the two important political leaders and the fraught slice of history they shared down to a rambling conversation filled with barbs and bitterness. All of the most important bits of backstory and history are crammed into dialogue rather shamelessly. Colin Bateman’s script often feels like a particular brand of educationally driven historical theater, more like a lecture than drama. The contrivances that force the bickering and bonding to occur are frequently absurd. The messaging is laid on thick. It feels oddly dull and poundingly political as the writer shoves messages down viewers’ throats. This script is hardly a great one.
On the other hand, the cast is brilliant. The two protagonists provide viewers not just with two radically different political belief systems clashing, but also two radically different styles of acting. Timothy Small is fitted with false teeth, prosthetics and choreographed posturing to recreate Paisley’s distinct physique, movement and voice in a stylized theatrical manner. Meanwhile, Colm Meaney does his usual underplayed naturalism. At first, it’s surreal to see the two seemingly opposed performance styles bounce off each other, but eventually it becomes fascinating. Spall’s stylized show-off impersonation slowly develops a grounded human core and Meaney’s downplayed work matches Spall’s wild heights. They’re remarkable acting sparring partners impossible to tear your eyes from. Supporting players like the late great John Hurt add to the acting master class. Toss in some subtly stylized direction from Nick Hamm that makes the most of meager circumstance and you’ve got a film that flies high on technical and performance levels despite the weakness of the script.
‘The Journey’ isn’t a particularly intelligent or satisfying exploration of the end of a violently troubled slice of Irish history. The script is far too heavy-handed and ridiculous for that in its weakest scenes. However, it’s a spectacular showcase for Colm Meaney and Timothy Spall that frequently sails high above weak writing and is worth watching purely for the satisfaction found in seeing two great actors spar at the peak of very different abilities. It’s a best case scenario production of a rather lackluster script that likely shouldn’t have found financing.
For fans of these performers, the movie is worth seeking out. It’s also not a bad 101 history lesson on the Troubles, the IRA, and the peace that was found for those completely unaware of the subject matter. Anyone who has researched or been personally affected by that history may well feel let down or even insulted by the strange fictionalized simplification of the story, though. Approach with caution if it’s the content and concept that brings you to ‘The Journey’, not the performers.