(2016) True Life Drama (IFC) Timothy Spall, Colm Meaney, John Hurt, Freddie Highmore, Toby Stephens, Catherine McCormack, Ian McElhinney, Ian Beattie, Barry Ward, Kristy Robinson, Mark Lambert, Stewart David Hawthorne, Frank Cannon, John Wark, Michael Hooley, Aaron Rolph. Directed by Nick Hamm
Younger readers probably don’t remember much about what the Irish with their typical gift for grim understatement refer to as “The Troubles.” There was a time in Northern Ireland when the Catholics, represented by the Irish Republican Army and their political arm the Sinn Fein were in open revolt against the British-backed Protestant government. The IRA was in all senses a terrorist organization, planting bombs, assassinating political leaders and ambushing British soldiers sent to keep the peace. Belfast became a war zone. Readers over the age of 30 – particularly those in the UK – will remember these times vividly.
It is not like that any longer and while there are still some hard feelings particularly among older hardcore sorts, Ireland is at last at peace and Belfast is a wonderful place for tourists to visit rather than a place for anyone who didn’t have to live there to avoid. The reason for that is that the two sides got together and decided that peace was better than pride, but in order for that to happen the leadership on both sides – represented by firebrand minister Rev. Ian Paisley (Spall) for the Unionists (the Protestant political party) and alleged former IRA coordinator turned politician Martin McGuinness (Meaney) – had to take the message to heart.
Orchestrated by British Prime Minister Tony Blair (Stephens), the two sides met at St. Andrew’s in Scotland to discuss a final, lasting peace but early on the curmudgeonly Paisley informed Blair that he was going to leave for a few days to attend his 50th wedding anniversary celebration in Belfast. McGuinness, realizing that once Paisley was surrounded by hardliners in his party he would be unlikely to budge on important points to making the peace happen, invokes one of the rules of the meeting and arranges to be flown on the same plane to Ireland. However, due to storms the nearest airport in Glasgow had been socked in. There would be a chance to fly out of Edinburgh instead but they’d have to drive there quickly.
Former MI-5 director Harry Patterson (Hurt) arranges for the driver Jack (Highmore), a field operative normally, to have a hidden earpiece and for the car to have microphones and cameras all over it. The hope, shared by Republican politician Gerry Adams (Beattie) and Protestant politician Bertie Ahern (Lambert), is that the two men, who have never spoken to each other and had publicly disdained one another, would get to talking if forced to by a long car ride. All of them felt like McGuinness that once the crusty Paisley, who once declared Pope John Paul II to be the Antichrist, was in Belfast the talks would essentially collapse and the bloodshed would continue.
Essentially the whole movie is two people talking to each other with periodic interjections from Jack and occasional switches to the command center where the two are being observed. There is a prologue (which unusual for a true life drama features pictures of the actual participants rather than having the actors digitally inserted) that explains the lead up to the peace talks (and to be sure, it’s very well done) and an epilogue but mainly it’s just two guys talking. That can be a good thing or a bad thing but when you have two great character actors the caliber of Spall and Meaney, it’s definitely the former.
While I wouldn’t say necessarily that the performances here are Oscar-worthy (although Spall comes pretty close), they are super strong nonetheless. Both actors are riveting and the two have tremendous chemistry. Meaney, chiefly known for his Star Trek role as Miles O’Brien, is jocular as McGuinness, the one who truly understands the horrors of the Troubles and is quite eager to end them but knows that he won’t be very popular with his own people, as Paisley won’t be popular with his if they do find a way to make peace. However, he also realizes that they’ll both be popular with history. Spall is stentorian as Paisley, a perpetually sour expression on his face although he is prone to a somewhat impish (and corny) sense of humor. We’re used to seeing Spall portray English bulldogs; here, he portrays an Irish one.
While the actors don’t really resemble their real life counterparts in the slightest, they both capture the essence of the men they’re portraying, from Paisley’s bombastic speaking style to McGuinness’ haunted thousand-yard-stare. Neither man is with us any longer which is likely just as well; neither one would have been comfortable with the liberties taken with history here.
The former child actor Highmore is solid and likable in an adult role, while the late John Hurt is as dependable as always in a fairly small role but it is enough to remind us of what a great talent he was. Most of the rest of the cast are fine but unremarkable in their parts but Spall and Meaney get the lion’s share of screen time.
Yet the filmmakers cover themselves during that prologue by boldly stating that “this story imagines that journey” which covers a lot of sins. The tale of how two sworn enemies who literally loathed what the other stood for could bury the hatchet and not only learn to work together but indeed became fast friends whose banter was so universal they became informally known as “The Chuckle Brothers” during their tenure as Ireland’s number one and number two politicians.
The cinematography is beautiful as Greg Gardiner gives us lovely vistas of the Scottish countryside (although ironically some of the scenes were filmed in Ireland) and gathering storm clouds, of quaint villages and lonely country roads. It’s a beautiful film to look at. Spall and Meaney are given a lovely sandbox to play in.
I’m conversant with the events of the actual peace talks rather than expert in them but from what I understand the actual story behind how Paisley and McGuinness came to become friends after being enemies is more interesting albeit less dramatic than what’s portrayed here. The changing of hearts and minds tends to be a gradual thing rather than something that happens during the course of a road trip. In some ways the film cheapens the life journey that Paisley and McGuinness actually took with this imagined one but I suppose one could look at it metaphorically and find some common ground with history.
This is despite its laissez faire attitude towards facts a solid and impressive film thanks largely due to the performances. It’s never a bad thing seeing great actors act well and you’ll certainly see that here. One gets a sense of the depth of hatred that each side had for the other and the desperate but slender hope that they could find some common ground for peace. One thing is for certain; it was hellaciously difficult for both sides to get past their hatred and distrust for the other and learn to live in peace. If the Irish can do it, that gives us some hope that it can happen here too.
REASONS TO GO: Tremendous performances by Spall and Meaney who work very well together. The cinematography is top-notch.
REASONS TO STAY: History is fudged quite a bit and the story is oversimplified and “Hollywoodized” for the sake of unneeded dramatic tension.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are adult and there are some violent images as well as plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The journey depicted, sadly, never actually happened. The Rev. Paisley did not fly to Belfast for his Golden Wedding anniversary as depicted for the simple reason that his wife Eileen accompanied him to St. Andrew’s. McGuinness later recalled that the two didn’t speak directly at the St. Andrew’s Peace Talks and didn’t have their first actual conversation until about six months later.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hunger
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: F(l)ag Football