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The Journey reimagines the conversation that led to peace in Northern Ireland

The movie shows how the DUP’s Ian Paisley and Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness could have compromised — and become unlikely friends, too.

Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney in The Journey
Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney in The Journey
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Following British Prime Minister Theresa May’s disastrous attempt to prop up her standing via snap election, her Conservative Party — in an attempt to hang on to its power — has been attempting to forge an alignment with the ultra-religious Northern Irish Democratic Union Party, or DUP.

The broad implications of that alliance were deftly explored by Vox’s Tara Burton, who noted of the DUP’s founder, Protestant minister Ian Paisley — who once denounced the pope as the Antichrist on the floor of the European Parliament — that “his rhetoric was as incendiary as it was powerful,” particularly in targeting the nationalist Irish party Sinn Féin.

“His language, though extreme, represents the sentiments of many in Northern Ireland at the time, on both sides of the political spectrum, for whom religious imagery and evocations of past violence were closely intertwined,” Burton writes.

In 2007, though, Paisley agreed to share power with Sinn Féin’s leader, Martin McGuinness, signaling an end to decades of conflict in the country, as the two became both leaders and very unlikely friends.

And in eerily prescient timing, the film The Journey, which opens in US theaters this weekend, imagines the conversation between McGuinness and Paisley that led to that agreement.

The Journey reconstructs — with a great deal of liberty — a momentous moment in British politics

Paisley and McGuinness (who passed away in September 2014 and March 2017, respectively) had been mortal enemies for decades but had never met before the two sides were brought together in St. Andrews, Scotland. The aim was to broker an agreement about sharing power in Northern Ireland, thus bringing about a cessation of the hostilities that had taken the lives of not just activists but ordinary people as well.

But before the talks got too far on, Scottish weather threw a wrench into the works. Paisley needed to get back to Belfast for the celebration of his 50th wedding anniversary, but a rainstorm made it impossible for him to take a previously scheduled nearby flight. A private jet at an airstrip an hour’s ride away was arranged. And to avoid attacks from either faction, McGuinness decided to join him.

What we know from the public record is that Paisley and McGuinness were driven to the airport together, got on a private jet, and went to Belfast. Not long after, they agreed to begin their famously improbable power-sharing arrangement, as well as what by all accounts was a genuinely affectionate friendship between two men who had nothing in common except the land they called home.

Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney in The Journey
Colm Meaney and Timothy Spall in The Journey.

What The Journey sets out to do is imagine what could have happened on that trip to lead to such an extraordinary conclusion. Studiously calling itself “fiction,” the film makes no claims to historical accuracy, and it’s best taken that way. The story that ensues — written by Colin Bateman, who hails from Northern Ireland — is the politics of identity in a microcosm. And even when it leans out perilously into sentimentality, it’s reeled back from the edge by the fact that its two central characters are from Northern Ireland, and can’t let anything get too far down the path of sappiness.

The Journey supposes that the two men being thrown together in a van on the way to the airport was no accident. Colm Meaney plays McGuinness and Timothy Spall plays Paisley, with Toby Stephens as Tony Blair, Freddie Highmore as the young lad driving them to the airport, and John Hurt (who passed away in January) as the intelligence chief engineering the whole thing.

Yes, it’s a little over the top, conceptually, and the image of two guys in a van — even two as explosive as McGuinness and Paisley — just doesn’t make for great cinema. (The only riveting talking-in-a-car movie that’s ever been made is Locke.) The film feels like a play, in that it’s mainly marked by conversations broken up by seemingly random set pieces, and Hurt, unfortunately, is reduced mostly to uttering platitudes meant to fill in the men’s backstory for viewers who are less up on Northern Irish history. So things have to go wrong to generate drama, and some of the mishaps imagined by The Journey feel pretty contrived. (On the other hand, the movie leaves open the possibility that they were contrived.)

The Journey is more interested in how compromise happens than in historical reenactment

But the point of The Journey isn’t to strictly “reimagine” the trip as some sort of historical reenactment. It’s really more about unpacking the ideologies and personalities that drive conflicts like that of Northern Ireland, where despite the rhetoric — as Burton points out in her piece — it’s not as much about theologies and philosophies as it is about identities, and about belonging to a group.

The real Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness
The real Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, who became unlikely friends.

And that, the movie gets. Listening to Meaney and Spall sling epithets and, later, biting and often unanswerable accusations at each other gets at a deeper truth about these sorts of conflicts: There’s just no one clear, satisfactory answer. Long conflicts result in a long history of grievances on both ends. Spall’s version of Paisley is a humorless, unmoving, angry Protestant minister with a scriptural rejoinder for every one of McGuinness’s statements, no matter how innocuous. Meaney’s pragmatic McGuinness is largely unrepentant about the violence in which his group has engaged.

If the film were totally fictitious, the fact that the two come to some kind of understanding in the end would seem utterly improbable. But truth is stranger than fiction, and that actually did happen, no matter what really went on in that van. The Journey is the rare hopeful political film rooted in both reality and very recent history. Mark Twain is supposed to have said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. At the end of The Journey, you find yourself hoping history will decide to rhyme once again.

The Journey opens in limited release on June 16.