The Journey might well be described as a project that’s close to home for director Nick Hamm. He grew up in Belfast, and has chosen to revisit the territory for his eighth feature film, which depicts the relationship between life-long political enemies Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness towards the end of The Troubles in 2006. Taking some poetic license but based in fact, the film imagines a journey the two politicians make from Glasgow to Edinburgh Airport in order to catch a plane, and what they might have discussed along the way.
The premise is a familiar one, likely inspired by Stephen Frears’ The Queen and Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, but this time the execution is unfortunately poor, and the film suffers from its meandering pace. It also seems somehow afraid of its source material, tiptoeing around the atrocities that occurred in Northern Ireland out of a possible fear of offending either party. Whilst the source material should be treated with respect, there’s a sense that by not delving into the heart of matters, The Journey misses an excellent opportunity to really get into the politics that so divided Paisley and McGuinness. Instead it treats the whole thing as a bizarre British intelligence caper, making Paisley and McGuinness the odd couple set up on an awkward date by MI5.
That isn’t to say the script doesn’t have flashes of brilliance, but it perhaps would function better as a theatre piece – it’s not particularly cinematic watching two men sitting in a car for two hours, and attempts at making the story more engaging just make it seem even more absurd. Even so, Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney are on fine form as Paisley and McGuinness, and Toby Stephens is suitably smug and creepy in equal measure as Tony Blair, though he’s not a patch on Michael Sheen. The late, great John Hurt also features in one of his final roles as the chief of MI5, but he’s not given much to do, and Freddie Highmore is outright irritating as Paisley and McGuiness’s driver. It feels a waste, cramming so many fine actors into the film, when really the story is purely about Paisley and McGuinness.
The relationship between the real-life Paisley and McGuinness is undoubtedly a fascinating subject and one worthy of examining on film, but The Journey sadly does little justice to its interesting source material. It reimagines the friendship of these two Irish heavyweights as a light-hearted bromance, which feels like a disservice given what the peace agreement really meant to so many Northern Irish people. Despite good intentions, The Journey’s a political drama that never really goes anywhere.
The Journey is released on May 5th.