Partisans on either side of Northern Ireland's "Troubles" will naturally gravitate to one of The Journey's two principals: Republican Martin McGuinness or Unionist Ian Paisley. But for those watching at a certain distance — from across the Atlantic, say — the movie is as much a clash of acting styles as a political debate.
Playing McGuinness, Colm Meaney emphasizes warmth, humor, and naturalness. As the older and chillier Paisley, Timothy Spall is more mannered, relying on such gear as false teeth that make his occasional grin even more menacing than his frequent scowl.
The Journey travels toward an actual destination — the 2006 St. Andrews Agreement that achieved political power-sharing in Northern Ireland — but it's no docudrama. An opening title announces that Colin Bateman's script "imagines" the exchange between McGuinness and Paisley, who had never spoken to each other before the negotiations began.
In Bateman's scenario, both men are in Scotland for the talks as Paisley's 50th wedding anniversary looms. Heavy rain makes a flight to Belfast problematic, but the U.K. government arranges a private plane. Prime Minister Tony Blair (Toby Stephens) asks for McGuinness' consent to the interruption; he agrees, so long as he can travel with his longtime enemy.
It's a setup, organized by veteran British operative Harry Patterson (John Hurt). The men will be driven by an agent (Freddie Highmore) who poses as a chatty, clueless golf-resort underling. The van is outfitted with audio and video equipment, so McGuinness and Paisley's conversation can be monitored.
At first, there's not much for the snoops to overhear. Paisley even snoozes for a bit, before the driver rouses him with a supposedly accidental burst of hard rock. Gradually, the two enemies begin to gab, alternating small talk with vehement denunciations of each other and their respective movements.
The characterizations may owe less to historical accuracy than the script's tidy opposition of freewheeling Catholic vs. repressed Protestant. McGuinness mocks Paisley, an austere Presbyterian minister, for never drinking or dancing. But the actual McGuinness was also a teetotaler.
Since the two men don't seem to be developing much of a rapport, Patterson instructs the driver to take a detour. The trip wanders through a woods and into an abandoned church. There are several other complications, including one that highlights the two warriors' attitude toward firsthand violence.
Patterson is stalling, but sometimes it seems director Nick Hamm is, too. He adds physical locations and archival footage as if to prove that he's not simply filming a stage play.
Along the way, McGuinness and Paisley's relationship shifts in ways that are more interesting politically or philosophically than convincing dramatically. The movie is as carefully contrived as Patterson's plan. While seeming to favor McGuinness, it doesn't emulate Meaney's naturalism.
If Paisley is the less likable, both men are allowed to make their arguments, sometimes very effectively. The filmmakers even offer an alternate villain for viewers who come to root for both the Republican and Unionist: Tony Blair, presented as a conniving buffoon who's out of his depth. As the former PM, Toby Stephens gets to use all his shocked and abashed expressions.
How much any of this has to do with the actual personalities of Blair, McGuinness and Paisley will inspire heated debate, at least in certain localities. But as the conversation drifts away from Northern Ireland — invoking 9/11, tribalism, and Nelson Mandela — such specifics become less important.
The Journey ponders nothing less than the intractability of political violence. Which means it's pertinent far beyond Belfast.