While former bitter political and ideological rivals Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley would go on to form one of history’s most unlikely friendships and ruling tandems (known for being so chummy they would be called “The Chuckle Brothers”), I heavily doubt that their first proper face-to-face encounter was as jocular and crowd pleasing as its depicted to have been in director Nick Hamm and writer Colin Bateman’s hokey, hackneyed, and hypothetical drama The Journey. Reducing decades long political clashing that would leave thousands dead and Northern Ireland irreparably divided to a handful of overwrought speeches and actorly mugging, The Journey never purports to be the whole truth of McGuinness and Paisley’s first encounter, but it certainly doesn’t leave anything meaningful or intelligent in the absence of realism.

Reverend Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall) was the long running, powerful, Protestant, British loyalist leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. Martin McGuinness (Colm Meaney) was a powerful Catholic figurehead in Sinn Fein, the political branch of the Irish Republican Army, and second in overall rank behind Gerry Adams. Together, they were the living personification of The Troubles that plagued Northern Ireland through much of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. Despite a mellowing out period in the late ’90s, peace never fully rooted between the IRA and the DUP, and in 2006 then British Prime Minister Tony Blair (Toby Stephens) attempted to bring the two sides together, suggesting a partnership where the ailing Paisley would be primary in command with McGuinness as his second. Not only did their political and religious beliefs not align – with Paisley standing piously on all matters and McGuinness taking a more laid back approach – but the elder Paisley had previously never communicated with his planned governmental partner. The final piece of the puzzle would be to get the pair talking, which finally happened one day on an unlikely road trip.

In reality, the scenario that The Journey bases itself around was a brief plane ride, but Bateman adapts it here to become an automotive excursion across the Scottish countryside. The day of the British government’s landmark summit is coincidentally the day of Paisley’s 50th wedding anniversary, and the politician is keen on not being late for his big date and dinner back in Dublin. With a local airport unable to facilitate the reverend’s departure due to weather, a driver (Freddie Highmore) working in cahoots with Blair and MI-5 chief Harry Patterson (the late John Hurt) is tasked with driving Paisley to an alternate airstrip and private plane about an hour’s drive away, stalling long enough to get the pair talking. McGuinness sees the trip as a chance to bond with the taciturn Paisley, and tags along under the auspices that either warring faction would be less likely to take out a car or plane that had both figureheads in it instead of someone travelling alone.

Beholden to historical facts while attempting to recreate a landmark event that no one other than the two main characters were present for and was never recorded, Bateman’s screenplay for The Journey is of the variety where historical avatars are juvenilely forced into delivering backstory and exposition to the audience that the real life counterparts never would have uttered, especially when there are only two people in the conversation. Spall and Meaney are tasked with talking more about their characters’ lives and accomplishments than they’re asked to play Paisley and McGuinness as human beings. It’s the kind of film that has history on its mind, but is also so heavily scripted and theatrically mounted that the messy nature of its core political conflict becomes fictionalized beyond recognition in a bid to appeal to as wide of an audience as possible. Every line comes across as either a speech or a poor attempt at humour, and neither setting comes across as particularly rousing or insightful. Having Hurt pipe lugubrious highfalutin speeches about the historical significance of the encounter between McGuinness and Paisley into an overly eager Highmore’s earpiece only hobbles and dumbs things down even further.

In what amounts to the Planes, Trains, and Automobiles equivalent of modern diplomacy, Bateman has created a buddy picture out of something that should have far more emotional and intellectual weight than watching two people who previously hated and wanted to kill each other, warming up to one another. It begins with Meaney’s McGuinness attempting to banter and open up to Spall’s Paisley, but once the latter starts engaging in conversation, it becomes more of an masterclass in sustained bantering than a character drama with long reaching political implications. It would stand to reason that both sides would bring up blemishes on their record (Bloody Sunday, the 1987 Remembrance Day bombing in Enniskllen), but it’d hard to believe they would explain these events to each other like the other party was hearing about them for the first time. The Journey is a film that plays to the rafters instead of to the heart and mind. It talks at people about important historical events instead of to them, and this extends not only to Hamm and Bateman’s relationship to their audience, but also to how they treat their characters.

The staged nature of the script leads to a film where no two performances feel like they’re coming from the same dramatic place. Meaney’s McGuinness is handily the best thing in the film. Moving and sounding like his off-screen counterpart, he paints a sympathetic and deeply conflicted portrait of a man who has been questioning his past actions and motivations for years without compromising his own political and social ideals. It’s a shame that he’s put in opposition to Spall’s hammy, over-emotive, prosthetic laden Paisley and the actor’s worst performance in quite some time. Spall’s Paisley doesn’t feel like a political firebrand, but like a feeble old man seconds away from shaking his cane and telling whippersnappers to get off his lawn. It’s a further credit to Meaney that he’s able to almost wrestle their interactions into something moderately entertaining. Hurt, in one of his final roles, gets reduced to an exposition dumping machine, Stephens’ Blair is so cartoonish you can almost see the sweat dripping off his face and a puff of smoke in his wake whenever leaving a room in a hurry, and Highmore’s driver could have been written as a shoeshine boy and there would be little deviation. Still, one can’t fault the actors for working within the subpar material’s historical and dramatic parameters.

It’s also nearly impossible to lock two people in a car for ninety minutes and make a visually interesting film, but Hamm (GodsendKilling Bono) admirably does whatever he can to capture the gorgeous Scottish countryside outside the vehicle. The warring politicos leave the car twice – once to talk during a ramble through the woods when their car gets a flat and again when they make a stop for petrol – but mostly The Journey forces viewers to watch a script pitched at the level of a community theatre original production played out among actors who are all above this. Maybe if The Journey had a little more faith in the intelligence of its audience and more confidence to play things straight, this would be a curious and engaging reimagining of events. Instead, it makes one wish they had gotten a film about the thirty minute plane ride that actually brought McGuinness and Paisley together instead.