Slow political drama “The Journey” provides small-scale charms in the midst of blockbuster season

Justin Jones

Most films ride on the success of their screenwriters and directors, but sometimes a cast gives a set of performances so wonderful it elevates the film, even with disappointing efforts behind the camera.

The cast of “The Journey,” specifically lead actors Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney, make a poorly directed film with a boring script not only watchable, but charming and occasionally even touching.

Spall and Meaney play Irish political rivals Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness. In the fallout of the Troubles, a small-scale civil war between the Irish Republican Army and the United Kingdom, Paisley and McGuinness were given the near-impossible task of negotiating peace.

After centuries of conflict between loyalists and nationalists, this task seems not only monumental but futile. Odd rules that make very little sense to those unfamiliar with Irish politics result in the two riding in a car across the Scottish countryside accompanied only by their driver (Freddie Highmore). Fortunately, this allows them to see past the conflict and approach the discussion as people rather than enemies.

Paisley leads the Democratic Unionist Party, comprised of Christian Protestants who remain loyal to England, and McGuinness is a behind-the-scenes leader of the Irish Republican Army, comprised of Catholics who seek an independent Ireland. Spall and Meaney bring brilliant life to the roles, providing depth to characters that would otherwise be one-dimensional.

Spall initially plays Paisley as a grumpy, tired, judgmental, old preacher, closed-minded to new ideas and proud of the ideals he holds. Across the film’s brisk hour-and-a-half runtime, his stubbornness is tested, pushed and finally broken. Though Colin Bateman’s script provides no explanation for Paisley’s gradual character growth, Spall picks up the slack, delivering one of the best performances of his career, truly disappearing into the character.

On the other side of the car, Meaney plays McGuinness as a charming, affable, talkative politician, pushing for peace talks with a hint of desperation. McGuinness is an innately tragic figure, a man who fought decades for a united, independent Ireland but now simply wants peace, even as his supporters still seek conflict.

Unfortunately, the work behind the camera pales in comparison to the excellence displayed in front of it. Nick Hamm’s lackluster direction provides no sense of style, only a frequent, annoying bit where the characters discuss something and then archival footage of that event plays. It is not only on-the-nose, but these moments take the viewer out of the movie, distracting the audience from the performances that make the movie work.

Bateman’s script fails as well, content with two-dimensional sketches of characters rather than fully formed personalities. In addition, none of the dialogue is particularly interesting, leaving the movie with boring conversations between characters that are not worth caring about. Both Hamm and Bateman ought to thank their lucky stars, because the cast takes all of this and makes it pleasant.

Viewers with any interest in Irish politics will find plenty to love in “The Journey,” and wonderful performances by underrated actors are enough to give anyone a decent time at the movies, as well as a good break from the typical summer superheroes.

“The Journey”
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 94 minutes
Score: 3/5 stars