It sounds like a segment from The X Factor – or possibly like something inspired by Tony Blair’s autobiography, which famously wouldn’t even commit itself to the definite article: A Journey. Actually it’s a strained, dramatically inert and often frankly silly odd-couple bromance fantasy about the Northern Ireland peace process negotiations. The film looks like a borderline-acceptable TV play (lasting an hour) or conceivably a stage play that Peter Morgan could have done something with. Actually, the movie’s scene with a crashed car and a deer appears to have been inspired by The Queen, written by Morgan.
The question it sets out to ask is perfectly valid: how on earth did the DUP veteran Rev Ian Paisley and Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness – those two mortal enemies – finally find a way of making peace and even working together very happily? There must surely have been some human spark between the two men, some bit of humanity untainted by sectarian ideology. Trying to imagine that spark is a good idea.
But the movie creates a bit of Madame Tussaud’s cinema: the two figures are basically marooned and static, for all that the film tries to find ways moving them around to different locations: car, forest, church, petrol filling station. Two actors gamely play the principals to the best of their (considerable) abilities. Timothy Spall is Paisley, his mouth permanently set in an equine grimace, tombstone-teeth to the fore. Colm Meaney is McGuinness, quick-witted and wiry, but clumsy in his need to bait the old foe.
The drama imagines that half-way though the negotiations, Paisley had to make a long car journey to get to his 50th wedding anniversary party, and that for diplomatic reasons of protocol, to balance absences from the negotiation teams, and to answer Sinn Féin’s fear that an unaccompanied retreat to his heartland might sour Paisley on the deal, McGuinness has to accompany him. And while they are forcibly in each other’s company, the ice breaks.
The premise is a bit contrived. But that isn’t the problem. What hobbles the film is getting John Hurt’s MI5 chief to give instructions to the pair’s driver (Freddie Highmore) – actually a covert security agent – via his Bluetooth earpiece, on ways of getting the passengers to loosen up, while also giving him (and therefore also us, the audience) toe-curling lectures on how historically important this all is. Toby Stephens gives a suitably flustered and oleaginous performance as Tony Blair.
Meaney and Spall do a decent job, and occasionally the dialogue comes to life. Ian Paisley says that he disapproves of dancing, because it encourages lustful thoughts. “Not the way I do it,” says McGuinness. Was McGuinness really the comedy turn to Paisley’s straight man? Subsequent events suggest it might be Gerry Adams with the off-message sense of humour.
Elsewhere, McGuinness has an emotional speech about his personal anguish over Enniskillen and Colin Bateman’s script cleverly wrongfoots us into thinking that Paisley has succumbed to sympathy.
Yet what moments of interest there are just get swamped by a solemn history lesson about made-up history and we are stuck for what seems like days in the back of that car – except when we get the Morganesque deer crash. “Are you all right?” asks the stunned driver. The answer, miraculously, is yes – they weren’t wearing their seatbelts.
This film feels the need to be fair, to be balanced. That is understandable. But it is tiptoeing on eggshells of its own making.