There are just some stories, based in truth or not, that will inevitably be an uphill battle to translate for the screen. Sometimes a so-called “story” is less of an arc-driven drama than an amusing anecdote, and despite having some prime acting talent on board, there just isn’t much actual drama to explore in a given event. Such is the case with The Journey, a pseudo-bottle narrative wherein Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney sit in a car for over an hour and hash out Irish politics. Well, you can give a film credit for trying something different on a small scale, I suppose.
Ian Paisley (Spall), a British loyalist and Protestant leader in Northern Ireland, has agreed to engage in peace talks with Martin McGuinness (Meaney), a leader of the Sinn Féin, the leftist political party with alleged ties to the IRA. When Paisley leaves the talks to attend his fiftieth wedding anniversary, McGuinness insists on traveling along to the airport to continue the talks. MI5 supervisor Harry Patterson (the late John Hurt) sees this as an opportunity to force an agreement between the parties, and so colludes to prolong the car ride and monitor the conversation held within.
It must be said that the performances are fantastic, particularly from Spall and Meaney. Spall invests Paisley with a hardened vigor that demonstrates a true desire for peace yet betrays a blind spot for the violence his own vitriolic rhetoric has inspired in his followers. Meaney, meanwhile, paints McGuinness as a perpetual extender of the olive branch, yet sees nothing wrong with the IRA’s violent tactics in fighting for independence from Britain. These are diametrically opposed personalities, but they have enough rich dimensionality that they can interact as people capable of relating to one another even as they despise everything the other stands for. The performances from two immense talents make that chemistry work, and it’s hard to imagine any other two actors being so well suited to these turns.
However, the limitations of the film’s entertainment value come into sharp focus once the conversation has dragged on for more than ten minutes. The personalities may be engaging, but the dialogue is not, relying on pleas for understanding and stubborn harrumphing as the go-to construction. This seems like the natural way to portray these events, but their statements are neither profound nor witty enough to make their talk absorbing, even as they make reference to political violence made in their causes’ names. You can feel the film straining under the pressure of its premise as it contorts to provide new settings for its subjects to talk in—the historical veracity of which are suspect—and consequently The Journey is bogged down in its “every side is both right and wrong” empty moralism.
Despite the talent involved, there just isn’t much to recommend about The Journey. Spall and Meaney are some of the best character actors of their generation, but with such a limp script that feels more like a textbook passage than an emotional drama, it becomes hard to be invested in the real stakes that were intrinsic to this event. A quest for peace need not be so boring, even if that peace is achieved through a mere handshake in the back of a car.