Tectonic shifts in world events can turn on individual personalities. This is a premise that has long beguiled writers, and we’ve seen it developed in plays like A Walk in the Woods, the 1987 Pulitzer finalist that dramatized an extracurricular stroll taken by negotiators Paul H. Nitze (American) and Yuli A. Kvitsinsky (Soviet) through the woods outside Geneva in pursuit of an arms breakthrough, or in the reigning Tony-winner which recounts the back-channel negotiations that produced the 1990s Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO.
Into this template steps director Nick Hamm, with an imagining of what might have transpired on a fateful ride shared by Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall), the Irish Democratic Unionist Party leader, and Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness (Colm Meaney). The journey takes them from the stalled 2006 Northern Ireland peace talks at Scotland’s St. Andrews to the Edinburgh airport for a flight to Belfast, and from implacable enmity to a grudging détente and beyond.
The format insures that we’re in for a story heavy on dialogue, and screenwriter Colin Bateman crafts some illuminating exchanges for the two men. He also engineers some strained plot-stretching contrivances that force the antagonists into a woodsy walk and an entertaining stop at a petrol station. The film plays a bit fast and loose with actual events, according to those familiar with the peace talks. Its ambition is not to be a documentary, but a fictional illustration of how personal relationships can affect history.
travels on the backs of its two stars, and they make it well worth the trip. Meaney’s McGuinness, the former IRA firebrand, is the one ready to find an accommodation, pragmatically open to a path to end the violence. He gives his character a wry humor and a long view, which overlay a deep and burning sense of the justice of his cause. Spall’s Paisley veers toward caricature of the Bible-thumping, inflexible Protestant leader, but evidence suggests that the man himself was inclined that way, and Spall is terrific in the role.
The film is stocked with a few other characters — back at St. Andrews, British prime minister Tony Blair (Toby Stephens) and a shadowy MI5 chief ( John Hurt) head a gaggle of officials trying to monitor and steer the proceedings via a hidden camera in the van, and at the wheel is a young agent (Freddie Highmore) planted to keep an eye on things. But it’s all about Spall and Meaney, and if talk is your thing, it’s a good ride.
— Jonathan Richards