Toronto Hidden Gem: Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney Spark an Unlikely Friendship in 'The Journey'

The Journey  - Still 2 - H - 2016
Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival

Nick Hamm's feature offers contemporary parallels about fierce political adversaries in Northern Ireland who learn to communicate with each other.

To hear director Nick Hamm describe it, the story of the two men who helped bring peace to Northern Ireland has all the makings of a classic rom-com.

“When they first meet, they hate each other, can’t stand each other. But by the end, they’re the best of friends. It’s a real romantic comedy structure,” says Hamm about The Journey, his new film on the unlikely friendship between political opponents Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness.

Even in these bitterly partisan times, it is hard to imagine how wide the gap was between Paisley, a virulently anti-Catholic preacher and British loyalist, and McGuinness, a former IRA paramilitary man turned Sinn Fein politician who was devoted to driving the English out of Northern Ireland. Yet these men, who came from opposite sides of their country’s bloody troubles, somehow became close friends and together helped bring peace to their homeland.

The Journey, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on Thursday, imagines the politicians finding common cause during the course of a private flight on the eve of peace negotiations. The flight actually took place — in 2006, when Paisley broke off peace talks in St. Andrews, Scotland, to return home for his wedding anniversary and McGuinness went along for the ride.

“It seems incredible now — it would be like Hamas and Likud sharing a cruise across the Mediterranean, but it happened,” Hamm says.

No recordings exist of the conversation the politicians had on that or any other of the many trips they took together. McGuinness and the family of the late Paisley confirmed to Hamm that the journey did happen but that both sides “were absolutely contradictory about what the two talked about … so that freed us up to invent their dialogue.”

Hamm enlisted Irish author Colin Bateman to draft the screenplay, and the project quickly came together, with Mr. Turner star Timothy Spall signing on to play Paisley and Irish institution Colm Meaney (The Snapper) portraying McGuinness. Two-time Oscar nominee John Hurt co-stars as a political fixer and Toby Stephens (Die Another Day) plays former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Though firmly set in its time and place, the story of the The Journey seems particularly apt for 2016, when political tribalism has reached new and ferocious heights.

“We did want to make the film at this moment in time, to make the point that we cannot live in a world of intransigence, that you have to talk, you have to have dialogue,” says Hamm. “These men had to move a long way from their original positions to find peace. And that movement is what makes great politics — the courage to take that risk — and great politicians.”