“The Journey” offers a highly speculative version of the conversation that put an end to the conflict in Northern Ireland that has come to be known as the Troubles.
This much is known: In 2006, the Rev. Ian Paisley, the conservative head of the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, and his longtime nemesis Martin McGuinness, a onetime leader of the Irish Republican Army turned left-wing politician, met in Scotland, giving the world hope that decades of violence would soon be over. Paisley, however, had to depart early to get back to Ireland to celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary. McGuinness rode along on the private plane — a custom with opposing party leaders at the time to ensure the safety of both.
What is unknown is what these mortal enemies talked about during that trip. We’ll never be certain, because both men have since died. But screenwriter Colin Bateman has some ideas, none of which are especially riveting.
At least the casting is.
Timothy Spall plays Paisley, the sanctimonious Protestant clergyman who once called the pope the Antichrist, with Colm Meaney taking the role of McGuinness, here played as a droll wiseguy who refuses to apologize for the violence he has incited. The veteran actors do what they can with these one-note characters, in what amounts to an “Odd Couple” setup, spouting dialogue that’s repetitive and overly explanatory.
Director Nick Hamm shifts the action from a plane to a car on the way to the airport, with a British intelligence agent (the late John Hurt) watching remotely via hidden camera and pulling strings in the hope of inspiring the men to start talking. It won’t be easy, considering that Paisley is initially set on giving the silent treatment to the chattier McGuinness. But the agent carries on, whispering prompts through the earpiece of the car’s driver (Freddie Highmore), while also giving the young chauffeur an exhaustive history of Irish sectarianism.
Considering what’s at stake, the tiresome banter — once it finally gets going — drains all suspense from the proceedings, despite a musical score that sounds like it was lifted from an espionage thriller. Here are two men who hold the fate of a nation in their hands, and yet there’s no real drama. Every element of the movie feels fabricated, from the stilted conversation to the all-too-convenient obstacles the movie keeps throwing in the path of progress, including a flat tire, an empty gas tank and an implausible detour to a church.
Still, “The Journey” feels timely, with its story of entrenched political foes finding common ground. In reality, the two men went on to become close friends. These days, that’s a hopeful outcome, given this divisive moment in history. If Paisley and McGuinness could reach across the aisle after so much hatred and bloodshed, the film seems to say, surely anyone can. That’s an inspiring thought. But in a movie this forced, inspiration is just as unlikely to occur as everything else.
PG-13. At Landmark’s West End Cinema. Contains violent images and strong language. 95 minutes.