The Journey

Based on true events.

The Journey is a buddy road movie with a twist: the film’s central characters are the true-life warrior politicians who negotiated the landmark 2006 peace agreement in Northern Ireland, winding down the Troubles to what was (in theory, at least) an official endpoint.

Poster for road movie drama The JourneyDr. Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall) is the 80-year-old founder and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, a proudly prudish evangelical Protestant minister who would no more countenance the reunification of Ireland than he would agree to say that the earth is flat. Paisley has been battling the Irish Republican Army for close to 40 years, and he will not stand down. To him, the IRA is the Antichrist, and so is everyone in it.

Martin McGuinness (Colm Meaney) is the Sinn Féin MP and veteran leader of the IRA, who rose up in the organization in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, the 1972 massacre in which British soldiers shot and killed 13 Northern Irish civilian protesters. He has been fighting the Unionist side since he was in his teens, and he will not stand down. To him, Ian Paisley is a political and religious tyrant who stands for oppression with an iron grip.

Paisley and McGuinness despise each other, but have agreed to come together in St. Andrews, Scotland to try and hammer out an agreement.  However, the summit meeting overlaps the celebration of Paisley’s 50th wedding anniversary, and he is so devoted to his wife that he insists on going home to Belfast for the occasion.

The representatives of the IRA have no problem with that. But McGuinness, hewing to a tradition that dictates that leaders in this conflict travel together (so that one of them can’t be singled out for attack), insists on going with Paisley. The two are put in a car to the Glasgow airport driven by a boyish chauffeur (Freddie Highmore).

The Journey, as its opening sequence acknowledges, is a made-up drama about what was said that day. It’s a juicy speculative two-hander, the sort of thing that might have been made about Nixon and Mao, or Reagan and Gorbachev, or Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal. The conceit being peddled here is that politics is personality: If we just get to know the people involved, we will touch the hidden truth of history. But in this case, it holds water, because Ian Paisley, with his stern Unionist fanaticism, was one of the architects of the Irish conflict, and an IRA freedom fighter like Martin McGuinness staked his morality on every car bomb.

For a while, it’s a conversational clash from hell. Paisley, played by Spall with lips so pursed that it looks like he thinks it would be tempting fate to smile, is not a man you can cuddle up to. He’s the sort of prude who thinks that line dancing is sinful, and he hasn’t been to see a film since 1973 (and that was to lead a protest against The Exorcist). Paisley’s rigidity is no joke: In his disdain for Catholics, one sees the psychological underpinnings of the conflict. To him, keeping Northern Ireland under the yoke of Great Britain is a way of repressing everything – in Catholics, in the modern world – that he fears and loathes. He’s a crusty fundamentalist and a world-class crank, yet so mercilessly who he is that you can’t take your eyes off him.

The Journey is like the political version of couple’s therapy, only without the therapist. We know that neither Paisley nor McGuinness can – or will – compromise what they think; they will not change. But as they glare at each other, they tick off their catechisms of belief, and just saying it all has an effect; they start to recognize each other as human beings.

The two actors are tart and fascinating, but Spall steals the movie, maybe because Meaney makes McGuinness too much of a mensch. Then again, he’s a weary warrior. By 2006, the Troubles have raged for so long that both sides are exhausted. The movie makes the astute point that 9/11 changed everything. Suddenly, the tit-for-tat deadliness of the conflict in Northern Ireland was robbed of its propagandistic power. It seemed small and, more and more, it seemed pointless.

The Journey is a celebration, by two splendid actors, of the art of political theatre and a salute to what happens when people get sick enough of hate that they can finally, and gratefully, let it be.

– Owen Gleiberman, Variety


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