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Review: The Journey script does Paisley and McGuinness proud - though facts take back seat

Political Correspondent Noel McAdam casts a critical eye over The Journey, the long-awaited movie about the unlikely close friendship between Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness


Colm Meaney and Timothy Spall as Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley

Colm Meaney and Timothy Spall as Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley

Colm Meaney and Timothy Spall as Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley

It was a short hop from Edinburgh to Belfast, but The Journey was a giant leap for Northern Ireland.

The first steps taken by Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness on their journey from the St Andrews talks set us on a road we are still travelling. But the film of their trip feels at times more like an exodus - and some people may feel taken for a ride.

Yet Nick Hamm and Colin Bateman's movie is still an entertaining, engrossing story.

It does take liberties. When the former First Minister left the Scottish coastal resort to get to Belfast to celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary, the deal was already done.

The premise of the film is that the journey home shared by Paisley and McGuinness clinched the St Andrews Agreement, while the Good Friday Agreement of eight years earlier does not get a mention. Moreover, the film makes it McGuinness's idea to join his nemesis on the flight home.

When Northern-Ireland born Hamm and his producers first went to the Paisley and McGuinness camps, they found differing accounts of the encounter.

Lord Bannside's family said the two men barely spoke, while Sinn Fein insisted they had exchanged banter and began the personal journey that would see them become known as the 'chuckle brothers'.

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It is that space in which Bangor-based author Bateman is able to invent a sequence of events,including the notion that the trip was watched from St Andrews by a fretting Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern.

And it is Bateman's script - more than the direction or the performances of lead actors Timothy Spall as Paisley and Colm Meaney as McGuinness - that keeps The Journey on the road. His script is a remarkable mixture of light and darkness, seemingly natural throughout, but also carrying the strong sense of the personal journey the DUP and Sinn Fein men were on.

The two protagonists are presented as "polar opposites who have never previously spoken", but who personally hold the key to cementing the peace.

"Young men fight for the hell of it - old men care about their legacy," says a veteran civil servant played by the excellent John Hurt, who died in January.

Meaney is a better McGuinness than Spall is a Paisley, though neither of them are going for impersonation.

Spall has the brooding intensity and gravitas which Paisley could muster, but fails to capture the lighter, friendly side he showed when off-camera and out of the pulpit.

He also misses out on the Doc's rollicking laughter, instead portraying him as a man who finds it hard to laugh. It squeaks out of him, eventually.

Meaney doesn't even attempt to impersonate McGuinness's voice or demeanour, but he captures the energy and quick temper and is overall closer to the mark.

Director Hamm had the hard job of turning a conversation in a car into an interesting engagement, with only the supposedly Scottish scenery and two great actors' faces to play with - although the movie was made in Northern Ireland.

Conversation, as you would expect, comes slow, but there is humour. The chuckle brothers are seen discussing the Northern Irish tendency to add 'so it is' and 'so I did' to the end of sentences, which is clunky enough in itself, but should work well on a UK audience that grew up with Corrie's Jim McDonald, so it should.

The first touch of humanity comes when McGuinness helps Paisley find pills he has dropped, and the medication proves the cure which leads Hurt's civil servant to declare: "They've done it!"

In the best scene, Paisley asks McGuinness to apologise in public - and is then first to stretch out the hand. DUP supporters may take a wobble on that one.

So an interesting rather than compelling film, with many memorable lines and which, of course, will have a special resonance across Northern Ireland.

The Journey opens in cinemas on Friday.

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