Review: The Journey never quite manages to get out of second gear
David Roy thumbs a lift with the Colin Bateman-penned movie The Journey, a historically inspired fictionalised account of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness's first one-to-one meeting
'THE chuckle brothers': this was Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness at Stormont, ideological enemies turned political collaborators in the top two jobs at the north's fledgling power-sharing parliament.
However, before all the smiles and pragmatic camaraderie on the hill came a frosty reckoning at St Andrews in Scotland: the 2006 talks convened between the British and Irish governments and the north's major political parties to re-establish devolution once and for all.
The Journey is set during these crucial negotiations and begins with the DUP and Sinn Fein contingents converging on St Andrews, where a nervous Tony Blair (Toby Stephens) and his veteran MI5 security advisor Harry Patterson (John Hurt) are really, really hoping that 'the hand of history' will soon be patting them on the back instead of tightening around their throats, as per usual, over this latest aspect of 'the Ulster question'.
"I feel like I'm looking at the promised land through the wrong end of a telescope," complains Blair.
"I've been at this since 1972," replies Patterson, "but this time is the first time I've really felt 'yes, there's a chance'.
"Young men fight for the hell of it – but old men care about their legacy," he adds, as the camera lingers knowingly on the soon to be ex-Labour leader.
With the high stakes effectively and reasonably accurately illustrated – there's also some 'The Troubles for Dummies' style on-screen text at the very start – the Colin Bateman-written film then embarks on a flight, or rather drive, of fancy.
The Journey centres on a fictionalised weather-beating dash from St Andrews to Edinburgh airport to allow Ian Paisley to return to Belfast for his 50th wedding anniversary celebrations – with Martin McGuinness for company.
The Blair government are eager to keep 'The Rev' sweet, while McGuinness decides he must thrash things out one-to-one with his rival before Paisley's ears are bent by an intensive round of anti-'Sinn Fein/IRA' chat back in his heartland.
"If that shower of sycophants get a hold of him before he's said yes, he will change his mind," reasons the Sinn Fein number two.
"If Big Ian doesn't say yes now, we are just p***ing in the wind."
It's actually an inspired set-up for a talky drama, allowing audiences to eavesdrop on a significant close-quarters encounter between this most mis-matched political pair, who would subsequently become close friends.
Unfortunately, the Nick Hamm-directed film somewhat squanders the opportunity to witness the historic first sparks of commonality via ever more ludicrous plotting – MI5 are listening in via their undercover driver (Freddie Highmore) who's taking directions and cringe-worthy expositional monologues from John Hurt via a Bluetooth earpiece – and dialogue which rarely lives up to the significance of the occasion.
Still, there are a few chucklesome moments to be had as Paisley and McGuinness begin their initially one-sided verbal sparring: both Meaney and Spall convince in their respective roles, the latter occasionally straying into uncanny territory when lighting and angles are just right.
"Do you think, that any of this, is a laughing matter, Mr McGuinness?" fumes Paisley as the former IRA man turned peacemaker attempts to warm the DUP leader up with a few light murder and warfare-related gags.
"I'm just trying to break the ice," offers McGuinness, to which Paisley retorts stiffly: "I'm just trying to get home."
"We're all just trying to get home," counters the Sinn Fein man, adding: "Wasn't that profound?"
The Journey does strive for profundity as McGuinness and Paisley begin to open up to each other on a human level as fathers and husbands, but it also keeps deflating the claustrophobic tension of their journey (the four-wheeled, non-metaphoric one) by finding excuses to get them out of the car.
At one point, Hamm has McGuinness sharing an emotional story about the Enniskillen bombing while standing in a graveyard, which surely deserves some sort of award for the 'most on-the-nose visual analogy' of the year.
You can actually feel everyone involved panicking that a film about two auld fellas nattering about The Troubles in the back of a taxi isn't going to be cinematic or commercial enough.
Presumably, this is the reason why we're watching the late Paisley and McGuinness having their first one-to-one at sea level, rather than at 30,00ft aboard Chris DeBurgh's private jet (no, really) – as actually happened in real life during this pivotal period.
Yes, it seems the truth really is stranger – and in this case, more surreally intriguing – than fiction.
Feeling very much like an hour long TV drama stretched to breaking point, The Journey isn't terrible – it's just that, despite fine performances from the two leads, it never quite manages to get out of second gear.
In real life, Paisley and McGuinness were soon 'suckin' diesel' as one of the most unlikely political double acts in history.
Perhaps one day, they'll get the kind of film their 'special relationship' deserves.
THE JOURNEY (12A, 94 mins). Drama. Colm Meaney, Timothy Spall, Freddie Highmore, John Hurt, Toby Stephens. Director: Nick Hamm