A feat of imagination surrounding the very real agreement that closed one of the widest chasms in political history, "The Journey" proposes that the bloody, hard-fought Troubles in Northern Ireland may have been settled with that most timeworn of movie tropes: opposites stuck together on a road trip.
Then again, if you've ever needed to crack open an uncomfortable car ride by finding common chat ground, this fictionalized account of firebrand Protestant loyalist Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall) and ex-IRA leader/Sinn Fein politician Martin McGuinness (Colm Meaney) going from zero to heroes while being driven to an airport may be just the kind of rift-bridging uplift to make you wonder who else might have been served by such a scenario: Burr and Hamilton on a cross-state carriage trip? Trump and Rosie O'Donnell sharing a golf cart?
Those are glib jokes, sure, but the movie Nick Hamm has directed from Colin Bateman's screenplay isn't above using natural warmth and humor to find just how never-concede enemies reached the point where, according to the end text, they came to be known as "The Chuckle Brothers" for the fondness they clearly shared in public once they began leading Northern Ireland together.
If anything, it's an over-reliance on contrived points of debate and a-ha moments of camaraderie and gentle comedy that keep "The Journey" — despite the heft of its two-pronged actor attack — from being a truly enlightening, deep-dive example of the kind of big-conversation drama that lays bare the inner workings of major historical figures.
The basis for the movie's premise is a truth about the 2006 peace talks in Scotland: Paisley, a Free Presbyterian minister, needed to get back to Belfast for his 50th wedding anniversary, and McGuinness — perhaps inspired by a tradition of Northern Ireland politicians sharing the same vehicle to avoid assassination attempts — insisted he be on the jet too. For cinematic reasons, Hamm and Bateman shifted the action from a plane to the ground.
The prospect of these figures in same-oxygen proximity animates U.K. prime minister Tony Blair (Toby Stephens) and an intelligence official (John Hurt) enough that the van is rigged with surveillance equipment so representatives from both sides can watch and hear any conversational progress. Even the young chauffeur (Freddie Highmore) is a security plant, meant to cheerily get the two talking and take detours if needed to extend the men's time together. Power-steering to effect power-sharing, if you will.
At first, McGuinness, like a man with a pint in his hand and a joke to tell, tries to crack the icy conservative veneer of Paisley with mildly barbed small talk, while the reverend shuts his eyes as if nobody else is in the cab with him. This is Meaney, friendly and engaging, and an artificially aged Spall, turning eyebrows and grunts into language as he did in "Mr. Turner," at their best: two ends of the Irish personality spectrum.
But as the topics of intransigence, conscience and who's to blame for bloody conflict stoke the pair's fire, it feels less and less like a real philosophical back-and-forth and more like didactic turn-taking. When a minor accident leads to the pair walking through woods to an abandoned church, for instance — complete with painted martyrs, a pulpit and a cemetery — the convenient emotional triggers feel rigged, not organic.
"The Journey" is certainly palpable fantasy, especially in Meaney's and Spall's hands. Absent being in the room when peace is negotiated, we need thoughtful art to fill in the sights, sounds and textures of violent hatred diffused — the words that reinforce but then turn the corner, the gestures that seem suspicious before they make sense. But while Hamm and Bateman have the right idea overall, their love of contrivance too often gives "The Journey" the sense of being reverse-engineered to explain a breakthrough rather than driven by the messy, human possibilities of their what-if.
Rating: PG-13, for thematic elements including violent images and language
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Royal, West L.A.