By its own admission, most of the story of this wonky, ripped-from-the-headlines semi-comic drama about the mid-2000s Northern Ireland peace process has been invented. The only real fact here is that in 2006 the Sinn Fein politician and former IRA man Martin McGuinness and the Democratic Unionist Party leader Iain Paisley did indeed finally put decades of bitter differences aside to embrace a momentous powersharing agreement. Colin Bateman's ill-disciplined and larky script wonders what led to such a rapprochement by condensing the pair's yet-to-emerge friendship into a story that spans just a few hours of one day.
'The Journey' imagines McGuinness and Paisley, barely talking, riding in a people-carrier one rainy evening from peace talks in Aberdeen to Edinburgh, where they both plan to take a flight to Belfast. They snap and poke at each other as conversation turns to Bloody Sunday, Enniskillen and less tragic subjects, like the day Paisley met his wife. Very gradually, the ice melts.
Bateman and director Nick Hamm pin the hopes of the peace process on these few hours. Which is not a bad idea, and full marks for dramatic boldness. But they're not content with allowing the claustrophobia of the backseat of a car to work its magic. Instead they constantly let the air out of the situation by piling on comic distractions and pratfalls.
So many key plot points are tough to swallow that it's impossible to take 'The Journey' seriously, even as an imaginative spin on the truth. Especially misguided is a ludicrous quirk of the story that sees a veteran MI5 officer (John Hurt) talking into a secret earpiece to the people-carrier's driver (Freddie Highmore). A loud drumbeat score is also a distracting misstep. And the role of an injured stag at easing relations between McGuinness and Paisley is strikingly similar to a scene in another Blair-era teasing drama, 'The Queen’.
Most disappointingly, Spall as Paisley is not convincing. He's chained so closely to a few facial and vocal tics that a real human never breaks free. His Ulster accent is shaky and he never looks relaxed, especially next to the more easy-going Meaney, who's able to play McGuinness much closer to home. Let's not even discuss Toby Stephens's C-grade Tony Blair or the poor actor stuck behind Gerry Adams's intense beard.
I’d like to know what Peter Morgan, the writer of 'The Queen' and the Blair-Brown drama 'The Deal’ makes of this. He’s the master of imagining the private worlds of public figures in documentary-like drama – and will surely be howling at the monster he’s created.