Two men and a long road home

journey

IT’S going to be a long drive: Martin McGuinness (Colm Meaney) alongside the Reverend Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall). Photograph courtesy Ster Kinekor.

OCCASIONALLY, A FILM crosses your awareness that makes you remember why films exist in this world. Nick Hamm’s The Journey is unequivocally one of those productions that celebrates the value of beautiful storytelling and the impeccable characterisation of historical figures, while it relentlessly keeps you utterly transfixed in a what-if scenario that blends political history with a foray into human values. It’s the kind of film that will suck you in, body and soul, and one that you will feel bereft when it reaches closure. And the pinnacle of its brilliance is its fictional premise, rather than its reconstruction of period, politics or the wide world.

Northern Ireland was one of the world’s most virulent hot spots since 1968, seething around the schism between Protestant and Catholic values, as it festered over the constitutional status of the area in the United Kingdom and the eruptions of ethno-nationality which saw the deaths of many innocent people in 30 years of unmitigated tit-for-tat violent recriminations. The Reverend Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall) was the firebrand Protestant clergyman who became the face of hardline unionism. Sinn Féin politician Martin McGuinness (Colm Meaney) was his arch rival. Republican champion of the IRA, he was considered an arch-terrorist – depending, of course, on where you sit as you read history.

In 2007, these two men did the unthinkable: They came to terms with their differences and put an end to the internecine violence in the region. What was it that enabled these two sworn enemies, on the cusp of great, righteous anger, to suddenly see eye to eye and to shake hands?  The history books will tell you one thing. They speak of time and cogitation, much renegotiation and hard work.

Director Nick Hamm, looks at this conundrum from a human perspective. Take two men. Leaders and important figures, by all accounts. Strip them of their lackeys and supporters. Frighten them a little in a road with detours and with no clear recourse to help. Pare them down to their basic humanity, and something else can happen.

And of course this is not Hamm casting aspersions at the facts of history. And of course this is not a real-fire solution to intractable politics in the world. The work, since its UK release in 2016, stands amidst a furore of critical opinion, some of which angrily declares that Hamm is hurting history for future generations. It’s a curious concern which reflects more on the success of the credibility of this piece of cinema than on the argument: if this critical position held sway, all fiction that rests lightly or heavily on fact would be rubbished.

Having said that, and as you find yourself magnetised to the premises of the tale, you get to empathise with both men. They’re in a car on the way to Belfast. The weather is wretched and it is the eve of Paisley’s golden wedding anniversary celebrations. He has to make his flight in time. You know how it will end – the proverbial book-ends of the story are firmly and unapologetically in place. But it’s what happens between point A and point B that is the central kernel to the work.

Like the play, Freud’s Last Session, this piece places emphasis on content as well as context and the words matter as much as the performances. Spall – who you may have last seen in the film Mr Turner – reflects the immovability of a man nearing the end of his life. He offers such a beautiful understanding of the persona and physical idiosyncrasies of Paisley that you cannot stop looking at him. The sculptural quality of his head is given emphasis and it sits with irrevocable nobility on his shoulders, which are more often than not hunched away from his travelling partner.

Meaney’s McGuinness is a fantastic visual, intellectual and human foil to Paisley and his vanities: he’s a bit of a jokester, but one firmly focused on his values. He’s more ordinary to behold, smiles more easily, but is no less tough a companion, with a fervent and focused understanding of the fight for freedom central to the ethos of him and his followers .

It’s a tale of attempted manipulation – featuring a very cleverly primed driver in quiet communication with MI5 Harry Patterson (John Hurt), but one in which the universe prevails. Things go wrong. And the two icons reach crisis in a remote forest covered in a forgiving layer of moss, in the presence of a godforsaken church and a dying deer.

It’s a story that resonates with the blood of innocent lives that gets shed in the name of ideology and power. It’s one about the seductive temptation and the possibility of power that the ego is prone to. It’s about an understanding of the Anti-Christ and a reflection of the 10 IRA hunger strikers who died in the 1980s. It’s also about the beauty of the Scottish landscape and the nuance of Irish dialect, of ancient graveyards and stained glass windows paying testament to the agony of martyrs. Above all, it’s a crisp and refined piece of storytelling that will not let you down. It will make you laugh and weep, it will stay with you for good.

  • The Journey is directed by Nick Hamm and features Ian Beattie, Frank Cannon, Stewart David Hawthorne, Freddie Highmore, Michael Hooley, John Hurt, Mark Lambert, Catherine McCormack, Ian McElhinney, Colm Meaney, Aaron Rolph, Kristy Robinson, Timothy Spall, Toby Stephens, Barry Ward and John Wark. It is written by Colin Bateman and features creative input by Stephen Warbeck (music), Greg Gardiner (cinematography), Chris Gill (editing), Olivia Scott-Webb (casting), David Craig (production) and Suzi Battersby, Chris Lyons and Polly McKay (makeup). Release date: October 26 2017.

 

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Punishing Turner

Timothy Spall plays JMW Turner. Photograph courtesy www.deadline.com

Timothy Spall plays JMW Turner. Photograph courtesy http://www.deadline.com

Victorian painter JMW Turner (1775-1851) may have been a curmudgeonly philanderer in his personal life, but he certainly doesn’t warrant the indignity of this insufferable film, Mr Turner, directed by Mike Leigh and on the art-film circuit in South Africa, at the moment.

While a good part of this 150 minute long production reflects inconsequential snapshots of a life captured under a Venetian yellow filter, with lots of dark shadow, cobble-stone roads and period costume, sprinkled with an inappropriate sense of moment when nothing is happening, there’s a total lack of substance to the manner in which Turner, the man, is reflected. And what we get, instead, is a disrespectful  and specious foray into the life of an iconic art historical hero, who, in real life, in skirting with unpopularity, effectively established the cornerstone of modern art.

Some beautiful photographic moments conjoined with ugly  depictions of emotion, reflections of fiddly bad sex with a servant woman — played by Dorothy Atkinson — covered in a rash which progressively and inexplicably worsens, and a whole river of red herrings in the telling of the tale causes this film to have no redeeming features: the acting is unconvincing – Timothy Spall characterises his interpretation of this character with grunts and snarls that border on the cruel and comical, making Turner at times feel socially backward.

But more that, the performances are disparagingly one-dimensional, leaving no emotional wisdom in any of the characters. John Ruskin, for instance, important critic of his period, is reflected as a foolish prat — played by Joshua McGuire — who exists within his parents’ shadow and makes preposterously stupid remarks. The madam in the brothel looks so much like the mother of Turner’s daughters that more of the plot gets broken and lost because you become confused as to who is who. But all this is mere detail: the film’s narrative is sorely in need of editing and the musical score doesn’t lend anything to the work. There is no flow. You don’t emerge curious about the man, the movement, the period. It leaves you completely uninspired.

If you have a background in the material, you will recognise elements. Your heart will be gladdened to see the cameo appearance of John Constable — played by James Fleet — a contemporary of Turner’s. You will recognise the strictures of the Salon, so endemic to the 18th century’s art world and you will understand the odd novelty of the daguerreotype, an early manifestation of the camera. If you don’t know any of this context in relation to Turner’s work, life and the texture of the world in which he lived, this film will not help you. There are no markers to hold onto, no narrative handrails to make this piece legible or valuable from a knowledge yielding perspective.

It is astonishing to consider the slew of awards and accolades this production has achieved since its UK debut during 2014. Are critics and audiences in awe of the subject matter? Or do they feel that mind-numbing boredom is necessary in a work that engages with the solemnity of Art? Does the period style compromise their critical edge? Is it that Mike Leigh has created so much good work that people have become precious about him? Either way, if you want a spot of intellectually stimulating, beautiful entertainment, you’ve not going to get it here.