October 2006. For forty years Northern Ireland had been engulfed in a proxy guerrilla war between the Ulster Loyalists and the Irish Republicans. In a lot of circles it’s known simply as ‘the Troubles’ which is inappropriate in many ways. The deaths of 3,500 people which included terror bombings and methods of persecution which can only be described as sickening is not something that can be shrugged off simply as ‘troubles’.
Working on a screenplay by Northern Irish writer Colin Bateman, Nick Hamm’s The Journey is a heavily fictionalised account of the St Andrews Agreement, where senior members on both sides of the conflict finally settled on an outcome. We spend most of our time in a car, as the two leaders were forced to travel together in order to catch a plane.
On the side of Sinn Féin (the political wing of the IRA) was Martin McGuinness (Colm Meaney). He was a man with a very shady past but with the foresight to know that peace was going to require compromise, even if this meant working closely with the people that he has spent the past forty years at war with.
On the other side was the 81-year-old Unionist Reverend Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall), the most hardline conservative in a conflict of hardline conservatives. Paisley was a man too ridiculous to be fictional. With his firebrand politics, extremist Protestant beliefs and his penchant for sudden outbursts of screaming, he was a doyen of old-timey religious bigotry and Spall’s performance is the standout best thing about the film.
There’s a great deal of creative licence taken here. This is pretty lightweight stuff which isn’t going to set anyone’s world on fire and subplot involving MI5 is a step too far, just coming off as silly. A few excellent performances elevate what is a pretty lacklustre screenplay, which comes off like a stage play with certain speeches that are as on the nose as a pair of sunglasses. As wonderful as the presence of the late John Hurt is, not even he can do justice to the dumps of exposition he’s saddled with. Toby Stephens too, playing Tony Blair, is a gift from the film gods yet he seems really uncomfortable, not able to figure out what tone he’s going for. Or maybe it’s just hard to see anyone other than Michael Sheen in the role.
Timothy Spall is still riding his wave of brilliant performances. In the last few years he’s played J. M. W. Turner, David Irving and now Ian Paisley, each as strongly as the previous. He has well and truly earned the status as one of the greats currently working. No one can scowl half as well, except perhaps Clint Eastwood, and his ability to capture an entire line of dialogue with a simple grunt is unparalleled. Colm Meaney is good as well, but the performance simply lives in the shadow of Spall’s role.
And what a role it is. Initially Spall seems to be over egging it. The Reverend Ian Paisley feels like something out one of Stephen King’s early novels but after a quick post-viewing google the man is every bit as delightfully bonkers as Spall makes him out to be. At the time of the St Andrews Agreement Paisley was celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary – a joke going around at the time guessed it was the last time he said ‘yes’ to anything. He started his own splinter church where he preached for 65 years, was vehemently against homosexuality, believed that every word of scripture was fact, rejected any compromise with his opposition no matter how tiny, and got famous for his bellowing sermons which made him come off like a ranting, raving lunatic. His greatest hatred was saved for Roman Catholicism – he once yelled at Pope John Paul II saying he was the antichrist and seat 666 in the European Parliament was reserved for him (seriously, google it). This is a role that deserves excellence and Timothy Spall brings it.
The Troubles is one of those historical events that lends itself to the dramatic. Perhaps it’s because of Ireland’s rich history of story telling. When you stop and think about it there have been numerous films made about this period, many of them great. Paul Greengrass’ often overlooked Bloody Sunday is a masterclass in tension and hyper realism. Or there’s the the intimate story of Bobby Sands in Hunger, an undisputed masterpiece even if watching it makes you want to stare at a ceiling and fight back tears for the next four hours. In the Name of the Father, The Crying Game, ’71… the list goes on.
Although there’s a lot of The Journey that isn’t memorable or particularly helpful to the overall piece, individual elements of it are enough to hold it up. Those who love Ireland and its history are going to have a ball.
The Journey screens as part of the Cunard British Film Festival 26th October to 15th November.