Greetings again from the darkness. Only the rarest of fiction can match the depth and intensity of historically crucial watershed moments. A list of such moments would certainly include the 2006 St. Andrews Agreement that ended 40 years of violent civil war between the Unionist and Republican factions of Northern Ireland. Director Nick Hamm and writer Colin Bateman team up to bring us a speculative dramatization of the conversation that ‘might’ have led to the treaty.
Timothy Spall plays Reverend Ian Paisley, leader of the Unionists and an anti-Catholic evangelical minister. Colm Meaney plays Martin McGuinness, the rebellious former IRA leader (“allegedly”, he clarifies) who leads the Irish Republicans (Sinn Fein). These two extremists have been at war for most of their lives, yet had never met until circumstances brought them together for negotiations.
One’s take on the film will likely be determined by the level of need for historical accuracy and any personal connection to long-lasting war in Northern Ireland. Either of these traits will likely have you scoffing at the backseat verbal sparring and the plot contrivances that allow the two mortal enemies to slowly break down the ideological barriers. On the other hand, it can be viewed as a mis-matched buddy movie featuring a game of witty one-upmanship with political and historical relevance.
Either way, the dueling actors are a pleasure to watch. Mr. Spall surely has the more theatrical role, and he revels in the buttoned-up judgmental nature of Paisley – a man loyal enough to be attending his 50th wedding anniversary party, and sufficiently devoted to his beliefs that his last visit to a movie theatre was in 1973 as he led the protests against The Exorcist. In contrast, Mr. Meaney plays McGuinness as both determined to find common ground and worn down by the years of fighting and lack of progress.
Toby Stephens plays Prime Minister Tony Blair, while Freddie Highmore is the young driver charged with surreptitiously igniting conversation between the two rivals. He is fed instructions through his ear-piece by an MI5 director played by John Hurt, in one of his final film appearances. Unfortunately, this bit of “narration” came across as condescending to this viewer who surely could have done without such elementary guidance. Still, the sight of Mr. Hurt on film is always welcome.
The infusion of humor is nearly non-stop. There’s a comical exchange about Samuel L. Jackson, a joke about the Titanic, and a Paisley diatribe at a gas station over a declined credit card that would easily fit in most any Hollywood buddy flick. However, these elements undermine one of the early on screen interviews we see when a citizen states bombs going off as you walk down the street is “part of life”. “You can almost taste the hatred” is a great line, but unfortunately doesn’t match the script of what we witness on screen. The two men re-hash some key events such as 1972’s Bloody Sunday, and it’s these moments that remind us just how important this new agreement was to the country. It’s understandable (and relevant today) how 40 years of hate can become a way of life and difficult to end, and it also shows us just how far actual communication can go in finding common ground between folks … even The Chuckles Brothers.