On the Unionist side, Ian Paisley, a man so vehemently self-righteous he once called Pope John Paul II the Antichrist – to his face. On the other, Former IRA firebrand and Sinn Fein MP Martin McGuinness.
The film begins with the sound of battle drums as we see both men getting ready to face their adversary during peace negotiations in St Andrews, Scotland. While this film is based on real characters and the agreement itself was real, the situation that the two men find themselves in has been imagined. In the film’s version of events, Paisley decides to leave the talks for a couple of days to celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary in Belfast. Seeing an opportunity to make some progress with Paisley alone, McGuinness joins him for the journey.
The Unionist side is also represented at St Andrews by Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is given a befuddled demeanour by Toby Stephens and his head of security, who is deftly played by John Hurt (RIP). The security team fit Paisley’s car with surveillance equipment and use an agent to pose as the driver. This set up is intended to help the team steer the conversation towards some common ground.
Before this journey, Paisley and McGuinness had never spoken to one another. McGuinness tries to break the ice somewhat unsuccessfully, until the driver gets the word from his earpiece to intervene. The ice is very slow to melt and at times the film seems a bit drawn out, but Timothy Spall’s (Auf Wiedersehen Pet, Mr Turner) performance as Paisley is almost enough to carry it. His constant scowl and quick temper play well against Colm Meaney’s (Star Trek: The Next Generation) lighthearted digs as McGuinness. Paisley, complete with temper and false teeth, looks very much like a Vogon from the 2005 version of Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. He is certainly just as difficult to impress.
Once the scene has been set, it feels like a play. The confines of the taxi become a stage for the arguments of each side to be aired. At times, the dialogue feels like a series of sound bites recounting specific attacks and deaths. Sadly though, these points feel more laboured than heartfelt, with memories of violence used as weapons in verbal combat.
As the car draws closer to the airport, Blair and his crew feel that more progress needs to be made so they urge the driver to take a detour. A deer crosses the path of the car and staggers away wounded. The driver tells the men to take a walk while he changes a tyre.
At this point, Paisley begins to let his guard down and the two men are able to laugh at the situation. When they find the deer, Paisley’s instinct is to kill it and he tells McGuinness to put it out of its misery. He is surprised to see a man he has spent decades calling a murderer unable to kill a wounded deer.
Once back in the car, the dynamic between the two men has changed and as they approach Glasgow airport they are even happy to share a few jokes. The tone of the film lightens up at this point as it feels that peace might be possible after all.
Without a doubt the best scene in this film comes very near the end and is comedy gold. It involves Paisley fiercely pontificating at a cowering petrol station attendant.
In the end the ice has not only melted, it’s simmering along quite nicely as the duo later known on the political stage as ‘the Chuckle Brothers’ joke their way through the rest of the journey.
While the men make no attempt to apologise for their past actions, they are both tired of fighting and agree to commit to a peaceful future. Upon the ratification of the St Andrews Agreement in 2007, Sinn Fein and the DUP had to share power in Northern Ireland. Paisley became first minister with Martin McGuinness as his deputy.
The film feels a bit like the peace process itself, fraught with drama and tension in the beginning, very drawn out in the middle, but with a good humoured ending.