There’s an emerging epidemic among British filmmakers to portray history not as it happened but as it suits their needs. The roots of this contagion date back to as early as “The Queen,” a “reimagining” of how the reigning British monarch processed her grief in the days following the death of her former daughter-in-law, Diana Spencer. It blatantly fudged facts, but thanks to Helen Mirren’s superb portrayal of Elizabeth II, it created a plausible portrait of what it must have been like to mourn in a world where you’re being watched 24/7.
Since then, it’s become an all-too-common — and lazy — device in making 20th-century history conform to Hollywood instead of Hollywood conforming to history. And it’s getting out of hand, evidenced by the back-to-back releases of “Churchill” and “The Journey” in the past three weeks. The former, which concocted a phony scenario about Winston Churchill getting cold feet in the hours leading up to D-Day, and the latter, a made-up, opposites-attract bromance between a former IRA leader and a bigoted protestant minister, disregard facts with impunity. Yet, both are eminently watchable, which is good, but it’s also dangerous that these fictional accounts will trump truth. And in the case of “The Journey,” the practice is frustratingly unnecessary.
Isn’t it enough for director Nick Hamm and writer Colin Bateman that longtime enemies Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness became strange bedfellows almost overnight when they finally met face-to-face in 2006 to help draw up the St. Andrews Agreement that ended decades of civil war in Northern Ireland? Apparently not. Rather, they deem it necessary to tiredly turn the table-turning into a cliched road picture that’s equal parts “Midnight Run” and “Little Miss Sunshine.” And as you’d expect, every scene — and ensuing calamity — feels contrived and overly thought out.
Timothy Spall as the crusty and stubborn 81-year-old Paisley and Colm Meaney as the younger, more personable McGuinness, do what they can to quell the troubles with their version of the end of the Troubles, but it’s not enough to smooth what turns out to be a very bumpy ride. It begins at a swank hotel in St. Andrews, Scotland, where the likes of Prime Minister Tony Blair (Toby Stephens), Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams (Ian Beattie), Fianna Fail politician Bertie Ahern (Mark Lambert) and MI-5 boss Harry Patterson (the late John Hurt) have come together to hammer out a lasting truce in Ulster.
In truth, Paisley, the ordained minister infamous for his rousing “never, never, never” vows to grant any peace deal, and McGuinness, an IRA chief of staff and close friend of Adams, had each other at hello. In “The Journey,” the two must first tackle 80 minutes worth of obstacles during a one-hour drive to the Edinburgh airport so Paisley can catch a flight back to Belfast to mark his 50th wedding anniversary. The excuse for McGuinness riding along is some made-up nonsense about potential assassination attempts. The story gets even sillier when their van, driven by a baby-faced Freddie Highmore of “Finding Neverland” fame, pulls out and we’re made privy to the two “enemies” being secretly watched by the VIPs back at the hotel via remote camera. Even dumber, Hurt’s Patterson is directing every situation through an earpiece worn by Highmore’s Jack.
It plays as clunky as it sounds. But Spall and McGuinness make it worth your while with their “Odd Couple” bickering; with each accusing the other of being the worst thing to ever walk the planet. Their shared hatred is a slow, steady melt, marred by tons of expository dialogue that requires them to recount every atrocity committed by the Brits and the IRA since Bloody Sunday — just in case you’ve been away from the world during the 30-odd years the two sides were killing each other with guns and bombs. Knowing how dull it is to watch two men sitting stationary in the back of a van, the filmmakers regularly invent excuses for the journey to be interrupted so the men can carry their discourse first into the woods, then an abandoned church (so Paisley can take the pulpit once again) and later a gas station. We even get a hammy buck playing like he’s injured so Jack can explain why he “accidentally” drove off the road.
You can almost see the pain in the pained expressions Spall and Meaney express during each of these awkwardly staged “mishaps.” But they keep you engaged just the same. Meaney has the easy part, playing the congenial diplomat trying repeatedly to break the ice with his main roadblock to a shared peace, and more importantly, a shared government in Ulster. So it’s Spall (“Mr. Turner”) on whose shoulders the movie rests; and he’s magnificent. At 59, he’s much too young to play the 81-year-old Paisley, but thanks to makeup and a permanently pinched expression he sells it. But it’s his distinct, holier-than-thou voice inflections and wheezing laughs that tell you that Paisley, who famously called the pope “the scarlet woman of Rome,” is a mule in preacher’s clothing.
Safe to say, both men, who affectionately were later dubbed “The Chuckle Brothers,” were colorful characters. And that should have been enough to satisfy Hamm and Bateman. They didn’t need all the accoutrements that distract from the inspirational story within. It’s also curious that they waited until both men had died — Paisley in 2014 and McGuinness just three months ago — before releasing their film. Was it so they wouldn’t be around to denounce all the inaccuracies? You be the judge. But fact or fiction, “The Journey” never loses sight of its goal to prove, especially in the age of parasitism, that talk doesn’t sway opinions — it’s listening.
Cast includes Timothy Spall, Colm Meaney, John Hurt and Freddie Highmore.
(PG-13 for thematic elements, including violent images and violence.)