Dramatising history is always difficult – especially recent history.
But dramatising history – particularly recent history in Northern Ireland – can be a bit of a minefield if you have to compress it into a 90 minute film.
Director Nick Hamm and writer Colin Bateman are under no illusions that their movie ‘The Journey’ about Dr Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness will attract brickbats in Northern Ireland.
If they get the odd bouquet, though, that would be an achievement.
Fictionalising the blossoming of a remarkable relationship between the DUP leader and the Sinn Fein chief negotiator, the director and his writer know every word will be parsed and every plot point scrutinised to see if it properly reflects historical events.
And in taking on the roles of Dr Paisley and Mr McGuinness, Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney will be aware that every expression, every vocal inflection will be scrutinised to see if they have accurately portrayed their characters.
Everyone in Northern Ireland who goes to see ‘The Journey’ will bring their own baggage to the film.
Some people will, for varying reasons, have a withering opinion of the careers of the former First and deputy First Ministers, as coverage of the recent passing of Martin McGuinness demonstrated.
Others will have a more affectionate take on both men and an admiration for the way they set aside their differences and threw themselves enthusiastically into selling the deal they forged.
Some will be annoyed that the film doesn’t acknowledge the Good Friday Agreement and the role of people like David Trimble, Seamus Mallon, John Hume or David Ervine.
Others will be fascinated by its depiction of the difficult transformation both leaders underwent to make peace and share power.
‘The Journey’, however, should be judged on its merits as a work of fiction and not as a historical document.
To be fair to Hamm and Bateman, neither of them are making any great claim that the narrative device they have deployed is anything other than a fictional reimagining of events.
The question is: does that narrative device work?
Hamm and Bateman’s movie begins with the DUP and Sinn Fein on the cusp of a deal in the St Andrews talks that would see their parties enter into an historic power sharing arrangement.
And that is where, for the sake of narrative convenience, the writer and director start to break away from actual events.
In the movie, Spall’s Dr Paisley has to leave the Scottish golf resort without a deal in place to attend his 50th wedding anniversary celebrations in Belfast.
As we all know, the deal was already sealed in St Andrews.
Toby Stephens’ Prime Minister Tony Blair seeks the consent of Ian Beattie’s Gerry Adams and Meaney’s Martin McGuinness for the DUP leader to head back to Belfast.
He gets it on the proviso from Mr McGuinness that he can travel with Dr Paisley to Edinburgh Airport.
The Sinn Fein chief negotiator believes this is his one chance to pierce the emotional armour of Dr Paisley and persuade him to strike a deal before he is swayed by DUP hardliners.
And the British in Nick Hamm’s movie believe that too.
Freddie Highmore’s Jack is asked by his masters in the intelligence services to masquerade as a chauffeur while Blair and John Hurt’s Harry Patterson monitor the interaction between Paisley and McGuinness through a secret camera.
Receiving instructions from Patterson, he has to string out the drive to the airport in the hope that the Sinn Fein chief negotiator and the DUP leader can somehow develop the personal chemistry to seal the deal.
The mood inside the car for much of the journey is pretty frosty as Martin McGuinness struggles to break through the DUP leader’s initial disdain for him and his involvement in the IRA.
The Sinn Fein chief negotiator tries to cajole Dr Paisley into lending him his mobile phone and sharing his story of how he won the heart of Eileen Paisley.
Sometimes he succumbs to frustration at Dr Paisley’s refusal to engage.
And when the car takes unexpected detours into a forest, a petrol forecourt and a fishing village, both men confront the grim history of Northern Ireland’s conflict, the anger and pain each other’s communities have experienced and the question of what kind of legacy do they want to leave behind.
With much of the dialogue taking place in a car, a lot rests on the shoulders of Spall, Meaney and, to some extent, Highmore.
Spall works hard to capture the presence of Dr Paisley and he makes a decent fist of the accent – although it occasionally wobbles.
However his portrayal of DUP leader comes across as a bit too granite, a bit too dour.
What is missing is the hearty laugh and there is simply not enough of the mischievous sense of humour that anyone who spent time in Dr Paisley’s company knew only too well.
Meaney zones in on McGuinness’s undoubted emotional intelligence, his ability to strike up a personal rapport with those he encountered from whatever background.
And while Meaney’s accent is not “pure Derry”, he succeeds in drawing out McGuinness’s ability to connect with people from a different background.
Sometimes you cannot help feeling there is too much Meaney in there and not enough Martin McGuinness – he occasionally comes across as Jimmy Rabbitte reincarnated as a leader of Sinn Fein.
Where the film really struggles is in the supporting performances.
Stephens’ Tony Blair is too much of a buffoon.
Mark Lambert’s Bertie Ahern, Ian Beattie’s Gerry Adams and Barry Ward’s Ian Paisley Jr are relegated to bit part spectators as the action inside the car unfolds on screens back in St Andrews.
Highmore’s intelligence agent irritates with his small talk about Samuel L Jackson, cricket and what it is like to kill someone.
The late John Hurt, however, is as reliable as ever as the seasoned British peace process mandarin, willing Paisley and McGuinness to strike up a rapport.
Where Bateman’s script really scores is the way it conveys just how difficult it has been for Northern Ireland’s leaders to face up to and recover from the past.
The words of forgiveness by Gordon Wilson to the IRA bombers that claimed his daughter Marie and 10 other lives in Enniskillen resonates throughout the movie – as do the memories of Bloody Sunday and many other atrocities carried out by all sides.
To Bateman’s credit, there is no soft soaping of the Troubles and the terrible toll that the weekly litany of violence exacted on all sides, including its central characters.
Hurt’s observation that young men “fight for the hell of it, while old men fight for their legacy” also has a ring of truth to it in a film which has to, given the running time of around an hour and a half, take a broad brush approach to actual events.
As a piece of drama, ‘The Journey’ certainly has its moments but it often tests the patience of its viewers and, apart from the odd choice line, it fails to conjure up really memorable drama.
Veering between dark dialogue and light comedy, Hamm and Bateman’s film is constantly walking a tightrope and it never feels comfortable in its own skin.
But given recent political events at Stormont, that sense of discomfort in the face of compromise feels like a very Northern Irish trait. Doesn’t it?
(Dan McGinn is a former Press Association political correspondent and a regular film and television critic for Belfast 89FM and the blog, They’ll Love It in Pomona)
Dan McGinn is a journalist who was previously the Ireland Political Editor and Ireland Deputy Editor of the Press Association and has worked for the Irish News, Belfast Telegraph and other publications and for TV and radio. He currently works in public affairs and is also a film and television critic with his own blog, They’ll Love It In Pomona covering the latest cinema releases.