Movie Review: “True Story” or not, “The Journey” adds a comical undertow to the Irish Peace Accords

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A cursory search for details on the “St. Andrews Agreement” doesn’t tell you much about the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of that 2006 finale to the Northern Ireland peace process.

And British newspapers have taken issue with the dark yet sometimes whimsical inventions of “The Journey,” their reviews often colored with the politics “Over There.”

But to an outsider with no real skin in that game, “The Journey” comes off as a playful fantasy of the “myth” vs. “fact” variety. As in, if things didn’t go down this way, it’s a pity. Because this is how an ancient blood feud ought to have ended.

Northern Irish screenwriter Colin Bateman, who has touched on the lighter side of the peace process before (“Divorcing Jack”), conjures up an Anglo-Irish “Walk in the Woods” — the Cold War era play, not the featherweight Appalachian Trail comedy starring Robert Redford. “Walk in the Woods” toyed with the conversations that American and Soviet diplomats might have had, away from the TV cameras and conference tables, just taking a walk and haggling over ideology and details. And that’s what “Journey” does.

Here, two implacable foes — the IRA hardcase Martin McGuiness, and the Protestant Unionist and firebrand preacher Rev. Ian Paisley — are needed to sign off on years of effort by others, and are not inclined to do so. Somehow, they change their minds.

But not on a walk, though there is one when the car they’re forced to travel together gets a flat. No, shove the two of them in a chauffeured Land Rover and let the bitter enemies — who had never met — vent, fume, wrangle and settle up, once and for all.

They were part of a meeting brokered by British Prime Minister Tony Blair (Toby Stephens) at the Royal and Ancient Gold Club of St. Andrews, in Scotland. Years of negotiations, months of planning, and every detail had been seen to, save one — a very British one — the weather.

The Rev. Paisley (Timothy Spall) wants to fly out, right at the beginning of the conference, to celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary back in Belfast.

And the IRA chief McGuiness (Colm Meaney) isn’t going to let Paisley go, by himself, back to the clutches of his fanatical following, if only for a single night.

“If we don’t get to him now, we’ve never get to him.”

Paisley’s marriage, McGuiness cracks, was “the last time he said ‘Yes’ to anything.”

They’re forced to share a car to a distant airport with only a callow, seemingly clueless driver (Freddie Highmore), a driver assigned to that duty by British intelligence, receiving instructions from the MI5 chief negotiator (John Hurt), a man keenly aware of the “hand of history” on all their shoulders.

The old preacher won’t speak, so the Land Rover makes a wrong turn. They’re slow to exchange pleasantries, so the driver asks gentle questions to prod the conversation along, all directed by MI5 via an earpiece worn by the driver.

Various actors had a hand on this script, at one point or other. Kenneth Branagh and Liam Neeson would have overwhelmed it. But the wonderful character actor Spall (“Denial,””Mr. Turner”) marvelously channels the seemingly humorless Paisley, who railed against drinking, dancing and Catholics.

And Meaney is a comfy fit for McGuiness, an Irishman always looking to “break the ice.”

“So, you’re married, eh? You get less time for murder!”

“Do you think this is a laughing matter, Mr. McGuiness?”

The banter ranges from light like that to deathly serious  — recalling “Bloody Sunday,” hunger strikes, intemperate speeches and quotations hurled by each and remembered — word for word — by each man’s foe.

It’s a brief film that stumbles into melodrama a trifle too often to be called “brisk.” Hurt plays a real person, but his “role” here is largely expository — laying out how they got there and what’s at stake.

But “The Journey”‘s wonderful stars — Spall, Meaney, Highmore, a testy Stephens and of course Hurt — make this sentimental saunter go down easily, reminding all involved just enough of the “bad old days” and how difficult it was to get anybody to say “Yes” to peace after so much blood was spilled, so many hard words had been exchanged.

“Never,” “The Journey” tells us, lasts only lasts as long as you resist ever meeting the person you’ve decided is your mortal enemy.

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MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements including violent images and language

Cast: Colm Meaney, Timothy Spall, John Hurt,  Freddie Highmore, Toby Stephens

Credits:Directed by Nick Hamm, script by Colin Bateman. An IFC release.

Running time: 1:34

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