Over the years there has been much speculation about Ian Paisley’s change of heart to go into government with Martin McGuinness at his right hand. The transition from frosty political enemies to the so-called ‘Chuckle Brothers’ was acute.
Colin Bateman’s screenplay for The Journey presents a highly fictionalised account that explores what the early conversations may have been like between the two political minds.
The St Andrews talks have coincided with the North Antrim politician’s golden wedding anniversary party. The weather has closed in and it’s imperative that he returns to Northern Ireland in time for the planned evening of festivities. The British government has pulled strings and a private plane is made available. Sinn Féin are set to okay the gesture to get the ‘big man’ home. But Martin McGuinness adds a condition: he must travel on the same flight as the man who’s never spoken to him.
And so a toned down version of Planes, Trains and Automobiles begins as the two protagonists are whisked away, alone in the back of a people carrier, to be driven to Edinburgh Airport and to endure the obstacles that are thrown in their way.
Historically, much belief has been suspended, starting with the fact that his wife Eileen – recently ennobled Baroness Paisley – was at his side in St Andrews, such was the DUP leader’s ill health.
The Journey is a legend. Irish has a rich history of mythology, and there’s many a germ of truth hidden in the old stories.
The film’s wordy opening titles introduce audiences who were asleep during 2006 to the situation in Northern Ireland, framing McGuinness as the “mortal enemy” of Paisley.
Each actor in the nearly all male cast has been given a couple of tells to help the audience overcome their appearance and dodgy accents. Tony Blair (played by Toby Stephens) wears a red tie and is played as a bit of a buffoon, speaking in platitudes as if the hand of history was shoved up the back of his suit and operating his mouth. Ian Paisley Jnr (Barry Ward) wears his trademark blue striped shirt with a white collar.
His father (played by Timothy Spall) runs a comb and his fingers through his long white hair and laughs gleefully at his own jokes. While there’s the odd angry bellow, his belly laughs are absent.
The portrayal of McGuinness is the most rounded and consistent, except for his accent which has been rooted in west Belfast. But Colm Meaney captures the spirit of the folksy, family-orientated, stubborn yet wily political operator who has deliberately chosen to crack open the Paisley heart.
Cinematically, the story relies on a lot of overly elaborate narration in the form of words spoken into the Bluetooth headset of the driver (Freddie Highmore) from spooks who are monitoring the journey’s progress. In every sense of the word ‘progress’. The fairly clunky incidents used to ratchet up the dramatic tension, expose the insecurities, and force the relationship to take its next step.
But in the make-believe world of fantasy politics, they serve to introduce us to the religiosity of Paisley and the violent past of McGuinness. (Though those labels are threatened to be reversed at times.) The film slows down to remember Bloody Sunday and the Enniskillen bombing along the ninety four minute cinematic ride.
Bateman succeeds in making the audience smile. It’s a crazy excursion, and the author’s sense of mirth infuses much of the dialogue. There’s only so much drama that can be squeezed into the back seat of a people carrier, even one with room for a camera crew.
Yet the essence of truth is in there. Over weeks and months, dialogue not unlike this film’s script must have passed the lips of the two political giants as they grappled with their versions of the past and their twin hopes for the future.
“Save me your crocodile tears.”
That line was filmed in late 2015 but has unwittingly become even more humorous after the 2017 Assembly election campaign. If you were to plot a graph showing how the two ice blocks melted over the course of the journey to the airport, it would not be straight. McGuinness’s patience is stretched and like a volcano, every now and again the tired and drawn Paisley spouts rage.
“Sometimes my bark is worse than my bite.”
Slowly “Mr McGuinness” becomes the “boy” as he learns to play the difficult instrument he has chosen to sit beside and “Dr Paisley” morphs into the “big man” as the pair open their emotional kimonos and expose their frailty to each other.
McGuinness naturally laughs along with Paisley’s weak gags, sowing the seeds of the respect that kept the First and deputy First Ministers working together for their thirteen months in office.
Republicans and unionists – never mind Tony Blair – will be unhappy with aspects of portrayal. Victims and survivors too will question what is entertaining about the dramatisation of a car journey that did not happen but still encapsulates the worst of the peace process.
The Journey is unlikely to elbow its way into the race for the Academy Award for Best Picture next year. Nick Hamm directs The Journey as if it was a play set on a four wheeled stage. Pace takes a back seat in a movie that lasts nearly as long as a real leisurely drive from St Andrews to Edinburgh airport. (Only the aerial footage was actually filmed in Scotland!)
There are no Greengrass-style re-enactments of mass protests. There’s no need to bite your fingernails: we know how this story ends before it begins. The twists and turns drive the story forward but won’t make your heart race. Though there is an added sense of poignancy now that both the main characters are now dead.
“Why here? Why you? Why now?”
The film can’t really answer that question, other than offer McGuinness’s suggestion that “old men can afford to be bold”. You may learn more by reading David Gordon’s The Fall of the House of Paisley, or Ed Moloney’s Paisley: From Demagogue to Democrat? (on sale this morning in Belfast Easons for £2), Mary-Alice C Clancy’s Peace Without Consensus: Power Sharing Politics in Northern Ireland, Henry McDonald’s A Farewell to Arms?: Beyond the Good Friday Agreement or perusing the archives of Slugger O’Toole and local newspapers in Belfast Central Library.
Martina Purdy aptly ended a BBC News report on the St Andrews negotiations with words that sum up the essence of Bateman and Hamm’s film:
“What better day to demonstrate your ability to commit to your new political partner than on your golden wedding anniversary?”
The Journey is an evocative and entertaining imagining of what might have happened if Paisley had got into the back of a car with McGuinness and their bromance had been hot-housed on the way to the airport.
Belfast Film Festival have organised the première of The Journey at Dublin Road Movie House on Thursday evening before the film goes on general release in some Movie House cinemas and the Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 5 May.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about, reports from, live-tweets and live-streams civic, academic and political events and conferences. He delivers social media training/coaching; produces podcasts and radio programmes; is a FactCheckNI director; a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland; and a member of the Corrymeela Community.