'The Journey': Film Review | Venice 2016

Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
'The Journey'
Spall is (nearly) all.

Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney star in Nick Hamm's dramatization of events behind the Northern Ireland peace-process, premiering Out of Competition at the Lido festival.

A long-immovable object confronts irresistible forces in Nick Hamm's The Journey, a ploddingly fanciful glimpse into the mechanisms of the Northern Ireland peace process. Mainly of interest for the latest impressive turn from British national treasure Timothy Spall — snorting and blustering his way through the plum role of Protestant uber-firebrand Ian Paisley — deficiencies in script and direction render the vehicle less than road-worthy. Best suited to a mid-evening U.K. television slot, the cozily old-fashioned affair has little hope of big-screen exposure beyond the formerly war-torn province whose history it depicts, though could serve as an undemanding crowd-pleaser for undiscerning festivals following an incongruously high-profile Venice bow.

Like director Nick Hamm, screenwriter Colin Bateman has worked mainly in television over the past decade. One must go back to 2000's little-seen comedy Wild About Harry for his last feature-film credit. While set in Northern Ireland, that knockabout comedy contrived to make not a single mention of the country's decades-long civil war (known as The Troubles), nor of the peace process which was then underway and very much in the international spotlight.

Bateman certainly atones for such omissions here, however, taking the real-life St Andrews summit — held at the Scottish golf resort in October 2006 — as the backdrop for what the opening credits identify as an imaginary scenario involving two of the key players. For various somewhat unconvincing reasons, Paisley — heading back to Belfast for his Golden Wedding party — and his ebullient Catholic opposite number Martin McGuinness (Colm Meaney) must share a limo drive to Edinburgh airport. The 50-mile drive should take around an hour, but various delays and mishaps occur along the way — several of them the fault of their chatty young Scots chauffeur (Freddie Highmore).

What the passengers don't know, however, is that the unnamed driver is in fact a British agent in secret communication with his bosses back at St Andrews, who follow the proceedings via a hidden camera from their makeshift control-room. Veteran MI5 man Patterson (John Hurt), spotting an opportunity to bring lifelong foes Paisley and McGuinness together in relatively private and informal circumstances, silkily "directs" the proceedings from afar. The stakes are sky-high, as British Prime Minister Tony Blair (Toby Stephens), under whose auspices the negotiations are taking place, realizes all too well.

While much stockier and bulkier than the real Blair, Stephens nails the slippery chumminess of a leader fiercely concerned with the judgment of posterity — worries rendered decidedly ironic by the current parlous state of his reputation in many quarters. "The buck stops with me ... or does it?" he dithers, before blithely assuring both parties concerned, "I'm on your side, OK?" Stephens successfully escapes from the long shadow of what remains the screen's finest Blair, Michael Sheen in The Queen, though all other comparisons with Stephen Frears' deft comedy of political manners are very much to The Journey's disadvantage.

The dialogue is generally much too on-the-nose, especially when we overhear Hurt's exposition-heavy comments to Highmore — the English actor unconvincingly essaying a part that seems ideal for Martin Compston. The contrivances which conspire to drag out a simple road-trip to what feels like marathon duration also ring tinnily false although a final-reel pit-stop at a gas station does gift Spall a show-stopping volley of pulpit-grade biblical invective. Hamm and composer Stephen Warbeck seek to amp up the tension with thriller-type music from time to time, cutting back and forth from the "control room" in a manner that gestures limply towards the high-octane universe of Jason Bourne and company.

Simplistic in its broad-brush approach to complex and controversial material which continues to smolder — and may perhaps even re-ignite in the wake of the Brexit vote — The Journey would probably have worked much better as a simple, stripped-down two-hander. This could have allowed Spall and Meaney to dig deeper into their intriguingly chalk-and-cheese characters, whose steadily morphing relationship is after all the crux of the entire matter. Then again, such an approach would even more indelibly underline the essential theatricality of an artificial concept evidently better suited to stage (or radio) than screen. 

Production companies: Greenroom Entertainment, Tempo Productions
Cast: Timothy Spall, Colm Meaney, Freddie Highmore, John Hurt, Toby Stephens
Director: Nick Hamm
Screenwriter: Colin Bateman
Producers: Piers Tempest, Mark Huffam, Nick Hamm, Matt Jackson, Stuart Ford
Cinematographer: Greg Gardiner
Production designer: David Craig
Costume designer: Susan Scott
Editor: Chris Gill
Composer: Stephen Warbeck
Casting: Olivia Scott-Webb, Carla Stronge
Sales: IM Global, Beverly Hills, California

Not rated, 94 minutes