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Journey, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Colm Meaney in a more upscale 'Van'."
3 stars

There are many far worse reasons to make or see a film than the promise of Colm Meaney talking to someone for an hour and a half, something that gets more enticing when the other person in the road trip movie is Timothy Spall. Add a little John Hurt to the mix and it almost doesn't matter that the stakes to this conversation going well are huge. If it had a little more to recommend it than that great cast, it might really be something.

It takes place during the 2006 peace talks in Glasgow, looking to find a permanent solution to The Troubles in Northern Ireland. The two main parties to this negotiation are Ian Paisley (Spall), a Presbyterian minister who has been a hard-line Unionist for decades, and Martin McGuinness (Meaney), alleged to once be head of operations for the IRA but now in a much more legitimate role in Sinn Fein. Paisley is planning to return to Belfast for his fiftieth anniversary, but the weather has the airport closed. He may be able to take a private flight out of Edinburgh, but protocol dictates that people of equal rank fly together, which is how Paisley and McGuinness wind up in a van with driver Jack (Freddie Highmore), with Prime Minister Tony Blair (Toby Stephens) and MI-5 veteran Harry Patterson (Hurt) hoping that maybe this will get the two mortal enemies talking.

Unfortunately, this particular chat isn't all that it can be. The filmmakers seem to have thrown their support behind Meaney's chatty, openly peace-seeking McGuinness rather than Spall's grumpy Paisley, so there's seldom an interesting exchange of ideas going on. By mostly confining the action to the car, the filmmakers give themselves relatively few ways to demonstrate the irony that the gregarious McGuinness has historically been a man of violence or that Paisley's blunt, paranoid persona hides a gift for manipulation beyond what the accusations they hurl at one another. They contrast too much, and on top of that, writer Colin Bateman and director Nick Hamm seem a bit reluctant to frame it as McGuinness needing to convince Paisley; as much as that's what's happening, Paisley doesn't feel enough like a hard nut to crack.

It's still enjoyable to watch a couple of great actors turn over the lines that they've been given, finding the best read, making something that seems like a first-draft overreach into something people would say because few get a chance to rewrite in the middle of a conversation. Colm Meaney has spent a long time as a reliable character actor and at some points it seems a bit of a waste to have him play a skilled politician here, somewhat trapped by his own restraint, although a close look show a man trying to find common ground with someone he utterly despises, as well as a man who has acquired some late-life wisdom but is not exactly proud of the way he arrived there. Spall dives directly into Paisley's awfulness, the kind that becomes a bit more repulsive with age as the make-up guys exaggerate what Spall is already doing with physical rigidity and belching out vitriol, only occasionally loosening to display some humanity. They both work a bit better when they get to play off Freddie Highmore's driver; Highmore may not have much of a character to play, but he handles a couple of different jobs well, making a believable transition from the relatively ignorant foil to the put-upon helper.

The screenplay takes what is often the most obvious route even as the car is occasionally being detoured to give the passengers more time to talk; it tends to stop with obvious purpose fairly often. Occasional awkwardness aside, the film does have plenty of good bits. Watching John Hurt as an old MI-5 hand talking about why he feels this attempt to end The Troubles will work and why it has to its delightful, for instance - Hurt has a unique ability to simultaneously raise alarm and assure the audience that the problem is not insurmountable. At least one intended surprise is revealed adroitly enough to earn a smile, even though it is kind of obvious. At many points, Hamm shows a tendency to do formally clunky but somewhat effective things, such as having McGuinness and a colleague turn up a TV news report to blast exposition at the audience while also highlighting that they fear the room being bugged, which indirectly ties into the way that the camera often turns and pans awkwardly in the van, emphasizing that it's tough to get in there with the passengers.

In some ways, it's admittedly impossible; both the opening and closing titles take extra pains to acknowledge that a great deal of this film is imagined. It could probably do with either a more creative or more exacting imagination at points, the sort that gets the characters better lines or a more interesting path to what the end credits describes. Fortunately, watching these guys work gets the film about 75% of the way to where it needs to go, and it just covers the rest.

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originally posted: 06/28/17 03:07:21
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Venice Film Festival For more in the 2016 Venice Film Festival series, click here.

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  16-Jun-2017 (PG-13)

  05-May-2017 (12A)


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