Is It a Thing, This Car Journey?

THE JOURNEY (12A) 2016 UK 94mins, directed by Nick Hamm written by Colin Bateman, with Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney

I suppose the question is: is a film, a play, a book, a picture a representation of a thing or a thing? Is it something in its own right or a simulacrum of something else? A synecdoche; a smaller version standing in for a larger original? Or even if a representation, then still a thing, able to be judged on its own terms? And what does this matter anyway?

The Journey re-creates a car, or more accurately a mini-bus, journey made by two prominent Northern Irish politicians, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, through a very picturesque part of Scotland, during which journey they debate taking the next step in the Northern Ireland peace process, joining forces in a power-sharing arrangement which will see government devolved from Westminster to Belfast (in case you didn’t know). Paisley is reluctant, McGuinness persuasive. The film is based on a real journey, taken by the real politicians, during which a real agreement was struck.

So, a representation of a thing, rather than a thing? This impression isn’t helped by the performances, impersonations, of the politicians by the actors. Ian Paisley, in life was a charismatic and highly recognisable figure, ubiquitous on television news broadcasts since the early 1960s, the personification of Protestant resistance to Irish nationalism and to the IRA, is rendered here in notable detail by Timothy Spall. Martin McGuinness, perhaps not so telegenic or magnetic, fascination with his character dependent more on his putative reputation as an actual terrorist, though in Colm Meaney’s simulation, more avuncular than menacing, is, in a way, Eric Wise to Paisley’s Morecambe. The tall man definitely has the best lines.

In the end, is it a thing, this car journey?

The question really is: would we care if we didn’t know who these people were? If they were just a couple of old soldiers trying to work out a way to live a quiet life in the short time left to them, would it matter? Did we learn anything that we didn’t already know or guess? And given that the journey has a happy ending, which we anticipate, having seen the protagonists on the news, smiling side by side, many times, was there anything to learn anyway? 

There’s a play currently in New York, Oslo, whose subject matter is the Oslo Accords, agreed by Yitsak Rabin and Yassar Arrafat in the 90s, which, as the world knows, unravelled in spectacular fashion amidst assassination, recrimination, despair. Perhaps here, amid the carnage, there is something to learn, beyond the personalities concerned.

Or consider the tele-play, Charles III, recently broadcast by the BBC, based on a successful theatre production, West End transfer and all that. Real people, Charles, Camilla, William, Harry et al, at some time in the future, speaking fairly dodgy iambic pentameter, complete with pretty hairy rhyming couplets at the ends of scenes, all this would have come across (I’m guessing) as delightfully facetious in the theatre, so much good fun, a gentle bit of satire to put the royal family into a sci-fi version of Henry the Sixth, but once adapted for television, what a train wreck!

We are accustomed to seeing these people in our sitting rooms, in just the same way we were to Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, and so when the actors attempt a passable stab at verisimilitude, our immediate inclination is to put recognisable figures into familiar styles. In the case of Charles III, his visions of a ghostly Diana, fairly extreme camera angles and stilted dialogue delivered with overwhelming portent, the only possible option is horror. A slasher flick set in the court of St James. I’m guessing they all came to a very bloody end. (I gave up, bored stiff, about halfway through.)

And in the case of The Journey? It resembles nothing so much as soap opera, sentiment and nostalgia masquerading as drama. The protagonists spend little time on the issue they are there to discuss, the future, instead the discussion is generally about the past.

Or take another film recently reviewed here, Clash. The action, in Egypt during the recent turmoil, set entirely inside a police prison wagon, the camera only able to see what the people locked inside can see, either through the windows or during the brief times when the door is opened, for the cinema audience a desperate, visceral, shocking experience, original, surprising, and a brilliant metaphor for the whole desperate situation, ordinary people suffering in ways they have no way of influencing or understanding. The protagonists aren’t anyone famous. They are themselves, humble, real. And we live the experience with them.

I don’t mean to suggest that The Journey isn’t gently entertaining. It is. And the performances, the recreations of familiar figures, are remarkable. It’s a feel good flick about a period that had very few feel good moments. 

But it could have been a thing, it could have told us something we didn’t know, maybe didn’t want to know, about what the hell these two people were thinking for something like 30 years of civil war and who now had to be civil to each other in an enclosed space. My suspicion is there’s another story here, which is just biding its time. I hope I’m wrong.

Paul Corcoran