Imagining what might have been said in a private conversation between two well-known and politically important people, then writing it for performance by actors is a tricky business. Cynics scoff and purists disregard.
It’s fine as theatre for long-ago history. No one, other than those having the conversation, was privy to the exchange, so writers invent in order to support the outcome of things we know. But when it comes to present-day celebrity, the politically famous, or a household name with whom we feel we’re familiar, imagined conversations are harder to accept. Based on what we believe we know, we might often remark either, they wouldn’t say that, or, it wouldn’t happen like that.
Yet, that’s what Northern Irish writer Colin Bateman has done, and for the most part, he’s done it well. In the new drama The Journey, Bateman has imagined what was said between two political enemies; two men who hated not only the political ideology of the other, but hated each other on a personal level with a passion. But recent history tells us that those two polar opposites not only ended up working together, they got along famously. Humorously, the British tabloids would later dub them The Chuckle Brothers, a name taken from a real-life English TV comedy duo.
But how was it possible that two men who despised everything about the other for decades ended up enjoying not only their working relationship but their company? The Journey explores what might have been said in private. While the names Martin McGuinness and the Reverend Dr. Ian Paisley may not resonate quite so much with American audiences, here’s what you need to know.
Dr. Paisley was a loyalist (British) politician and Protestant religious leader from Northern Ireland. During the late 60s and throughout the 70s, during the time of The Troubles, his unrelenting, firebrand, ever-protesting manner was seen almost nightly on the evening news. Despite his loyalty to Britain, he was no friend to the British government who felt he exacerbated the problems. Martin McGuinness was a former Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) leader who later became a Sinn Fein politician. However, due to the secrecy of IRA movements and activities, McGuinness was less public and consequently less exposed than his political opposite, but his importance in securing the Northern Ireland peace process was equally paramount.
The film begins in 2007. It’s the St. Andrews Agreement in Scotland, and the talks for political peace between Northern Ireland and the rest of Gt. Britain depends on Unionist leader Dr. Paisley (Timothy Spall) to share power with his enemy, Sinn Fein politician Martin McGuinness (Colm Meany). “How can you have a discussion with someone who might murder you if you don’t agree with them?” a spokesman from Dr. Paisley’s team is overheard asking.
The talks have hardly begun when it’s revealed that it’s Dr. Paisley’s 50th wedding anniversary and he wants to celebrate with his wife in Belfast. Due to political protocol that insists conflicting leaders must travel together, McGuinness agrees to allow Dr.Paisley to temporarily leave the talks in Scotland, but on one condition; “I fly with him.” In reality, it didn’t quite happen that way. But the setup creates a situation where the two men are forced to sit in the back of a vehicle on its way to the airport where they do something they’ve never done throughout their previous four decades of conflict – they converse.
“So,” begins McGuinness after a lengthy, awkward silence. “Fifty years married, huh? You get less for murder.”
Seeing this as a surprise opportunity to eavesdrop, the British government, including Prime Minister Tony Blair (Toby Stephens), Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams (Ian Beattie) and the head of MI5 (the late and sadly missed John Hurt) plant a camera in the chauffeur driven car and watch events on a TV monitor back at St.Andrews while relaying directions to the young chauffeur (the young boy from Finding Neverland, now grown, Freddie Highmore) via bluetooth.
The two politicians talk about how Dr. Paisley first met his wife and their connection to the Titanic. “How old are you?” asks McGuinness with good humor. They talk about the last time Dr. Paisley went to the movies. “I haven’t been to the pictures since 1973,” the reverend explains. It wasn’t to see the film, it was to protest outside the cinema for showing The Exorcist. There’s even some humorous asides regarding how the Irish speak and the involuntary use of adding words at the end of sentences when none are required, as in, ‘I went to the pictures, so I did.’
But among the small talk, there occasionally develops the more confrontational elements revealing the true nature and beliefs of the men. They don’t warm easily, and it doesn’t help when McGuinness tells Dr. Paisley that in all the years of the troubles, the IRA never made an attempt to take his life. “That’s a lie!” declares the reverend, insisting that there were three attempts to kill him. McGuinness, who in his capacity of leadership within the IRA would know of any orders to kill, assures Dr. Paisley with a knowing, sidelong glance, “Not our side.”
It’s a flawed script, and there are times when the contrivance seems simply unlikely. Under MI5 orders, the security car and the helicopter vanish. The intention is to give the two sparring politicians the psychological feel that they’re now free to be as open with each other as much as they want. Plus, in order to give them even more time, the chauffeur is instructed to take a longer route through a wooded area, resulting with a burst tire. That’s the point when you say, it wouldn’t happen like that. And it couldn’t. In reality, there’d be too much at stake, particularly when those two most important of men with whom history may alter leave the car while the driver changes the tire. They wander around by themselves, unchecked, without security.
Regardless of situational missteps and the unconvincing way the film calls for them to continue talking, what works so well are the two leads. Spall has the opportunity to grandstand with a blustery character who was always seen on TV as being larger than life. But he reins it in, and with white hair, pursed lips, and a laugh that seems more like a wheez, as with air temporarily escaping from a child’s balloon, he convinces. He doesn’t look like Dr. Paisley – Ciaran Hinds would be perfect – but he fully captures that essence of what we know to be the fiery Reverend Ian Paisley.
Colm Meaney has less to work with in terms of obvious, thearical personality traits. Our general unfamiliarity with Martin McGuinness ensues no particular colorful quirks of character, but like Spall’s Paisley, he convinces as someone who wants an agreement to work. He’s the one who wants to break the ice, and he’s the one who knows the sacrifices required. The world may applaud a peaceful agreement, but their people will hate them. “You’re here to betray your tribe,” he will tell Dr. Paisley. “I’m here to betray mine.”
Aware of the fictional elements, the film feels ultimately minor, but much of the intelligent, sparring dialog is often inspirational, as are the performances of those who deliver it. And sit for the end credits that include shots of the real Dr. Paisley and McGuiness working with each other. You’ll see why the tabloids dubbed them The Chuckle Brothers.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 94 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)