In Theaters

Bridging a gap is often quite a challenge, especially when it involves opposing parties who are philosophically miles apart. How can these adversaries be successfully brought together? And will the efforts aimed at that ultimately bear fruit? Those questions loomed large when warring factions sought to make peace in the wake of one of the world’s longest-running bloody feuds, the subject of the new speculative historical drama, “The Journey” (web site, trailer).

For 40 years, Northern Ireland was caught up in a gruesome conflict known as “The Troubles” between those seeking to preserve its affiliation with the United Kingdom and those looking to unify it as part of the Republic of Ireland. Though framed largely as a religious war between Protestants and Catholics, the ongoing battle was essentially political in nature, pitting Unionists loyal to the British crown against the separatist Irish Republican Army. The embittered enemies had tremendous hatred for one another, with vitriolic rhetoric and terrorist activity underscoring their mutual animosity.

However, after decades of carnage, the parties sought to make peace in 2006. Through negotiations conducted at St. Andrews, Scotland, Unionist leader Rev. Dr. Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall) and IRA political leader Martin McGuinness (Colm Meaney) came together to reach an accord. That was a tall order, though, given that the two men had never met nor spoken before. Could peace be achieved? Or would Northern Ireland be plunged back into civil war? Nervous onlookers, such as British Prime Minister Tony Blair (Toby Stephens) and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern (Mark Lambert), had their fingers tightly clasped and were willing to do whatever they could to help facilitate the process.

Longtime adversaries Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall, right) and Martin McGuinness (Colm Meaney, left) find themselves in uncomfortably close quarters during an unexpected road trip in the new speculative historical drama, “The Journey.” Photo by Aidan Monaghan, courtesy of IFC Films.

Before the process even began, however, a potential glitch arose that threatened to derail the entire process. The start of the talks coincided with Paisley’s 50th wedding anniversary celebration in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He planned to attend by flying to Belfast from Glasgow, Scotland, but bad weather led to a closing of the airport. To accommodate his needs, UK officials arranged for an alternate flight from Edinburgh, Scotland, but the proposal required approval from both Paisley and McGuinness to make it happen. Paisley naturally agreed, but McGuinness placed a stipulation on his concurrence – that he be allowed to travel with his adversary.

One might wonder why someone would willingly want to accompany his mortal foe. But there was a certain logic to this request: If opposing forces seeking to make peace traveled together, there was less of a chance of an assassination attempt on either of them. And, given that McGuinness was motivated to achieve peace, he was willing to join his enemy if this would help increase the chances of that result.

It’s against this factual backdrop that the story of “The Journey” is set up. What follows, however, is an exercise in historic speculation.

To get from St. Andrews to Edinburgh, Paisley and McGuinness are chauffeured in a government minivan, forcing the longtime adversaries together for the first time – and into uncomfortably close quarters at that. So, under circumstances like that, what might the antagonists talk about during the course of their journey – if at all? That’s what the film seeks to explore.

Foes in the Northern Ireland conflict, Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall, left) and Martin McGuinness (Colm Meaney, right), engage in a series of profound and heated dialogues in anticipation of peace talks in director Nick Hamm’s speculative historical drama, “The Journey.” Photo by Aidan Monaghan, courtesy of IFC Films.

Seeing this as an opportunity to assess what’s on the minds of the opponents, MI5 official Harry Patterson (John Hurt) assigns one of his operatives, Jack (Freddie Highmore), to drive his subjects to the Edinburgh airport. The vehicle is clandestinely fitted with audio and video equipment to capture the conversation between Paisley and McGuinness, and Jack is charged with finding ways to instigate a dialogue between his passengers.

What follows is perhaps one of the most unusual road trip stories ever committed to film. The conversation is slow to start and challenging to sustain, but, thanks to Jack’s inventive tactics to get Ian and Martin talking and a series of happy accidents that prolong the dialogue, a number of intriguing revelations emerge. These disclosures present significant insights into the mindsets of the two leaders, offering clues as to how negotiations will proceed – and what it will take to get results.

Though admittedly fictional, this film’s narrative hypothetically explores what it means to resolve conflict and what it takes to reach consensus, using the particulars of an actual conflict as the basis for discussing these theoretical notions. Strict historians might take issue with an approach like this. But, if we’re willing to suspend the need for authenticity, we have an opportunity to consider these questions from a “what if” perspective, something that we might be able to use in our own conflict resolution efforts. Granted, our personal disputes may not carry consequences as significant as the fate of a nation, but the underlying principles we can draw upon for working through them might easily be similar in nature – and just as applicable for reaching settlement.

Undercover government operative-turned-chauffeur Jack (Freddie Highmore) is charged with stirring up conversation between his two high-profile passengers in the new speculative historical drama, “The Journey.” Photo by Aidan Monaghan, courtesy of IFC Films.

What “The Journey” lacks in faithfulness to fact is more than made up for by its thoughtful debates of conflict resolution issues, using the Northern Ireland peace process as a template for examining these issues. It answers such questions as why the dispute took so long to address and the remarkable steps required to bring about a workable solution. If we resist the temptation to take its narrative literally, we stand to learn a lot that has applications that extend well beyond the geopolitical community. Add to that the sizzling, award-worthy performances of Spall and Meaney, and you’ve got a riveting series of dialogues that, in lesser hands, might easily have come off as a dry, plodding history lesson. While I usually have issues with films that take such blatant dramatic license, and even though the writing occasionally goes wildly off the rails, this imaginative take on this subject matter satisfies immensely without ever becoming tedious or pretentious. There’s more here than many of the dismissive accounts contend, and, in my view, that’s material worth watching – and perhaps applying when circumstances warrant.

A complete review will appear in the near future by clicking here.

Searching for the Truth

Uncovering what’s really happening in situations where the truth is easily obscured is often quite demanding. That difficulty can quickly turn to outright danger when the circumstances involve open armed conflict, especially where multiple factions are caught up in the fray, with each earnestly seeking to promote its own agenda. It takes a certain dedication – and courage – to keep digging for the facts, conditions that sometimes lead to sacrifices and paying a heavy price. Such are the costs chronicled in the HBO documentary “Jim: The James Foley Story” (web site, trailer), now available on DVD, Blu-ray disc and video on demand.

Free-lance journalist James Foley was never content to cover the easy stories. He felt compelled to be on the front lines of conflict, driven to reveal the truth of what was happening in some of the world’s most dangerous hot spots, including Libya and Syria. He regularly risked life and limb in his journalistic pursuits, leading many to wonder whether he was a committed reporter or a reckless thrill seeker in a profession in which it’s become increasingly difficult to eke out even a sustainable living.

But, despite the hazards involved, Foley remained committed, even after being taken captive in Libya in 2011. After a brief time at home in the US, he returned to the Middle East in 2012 to cover the conflict in Syria. He continued his reporting work, but he also began turning some of his efforts toward humanitarian causes, such as helping to raise funds to buy an ambulance for local health care providers.

However, like many reporters, Foley came under increased scrutiny from locals as conditions grew worse. And, before long, he was taken captive again, this time by a little-known terrorist group known as ISIS. Thus began a horrific two-year ordeal that saw him confined under deplorably oppressive conditions with fellow journalists, a nightmare that led to his eventual execution by beheading, a tragedy all caught on video. The incident stunned the world. But, as everyone could now see, Foley really was committed to getting to the truth – and paid the ultimate price for it.

Foley’s story is brought to life in this captivating documentary. It features clips from interviews with him, as well as his family, friends, fellow journalists and freed captives with whom he had been held. It also includes extensive footage from his reporting, some of which is quite graphic and terrifying, making viewers feel as though they’re on the battlefield themselves (sensitive viewers take note). Thankfully, audiences have been spared the horrors of Foley’s demise, though footage leading up to that atrocity has been included to make us aware of his determined commitment, tremendous courage and inspiring resolve to present the truth, even in the face of impending death.

In addition to its many accolades, “The James Foley Story” earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for “The Empty Chair,” an original composition written for the film by J. Ralph and performed by Sting. Its stirring lyrics and haunting melody remind us of who we lost – and of his efforts, like those of so many other committed journalists, to help keep us from losing even more.

The Best of Movies with Meaning – “The Lobster”

Courting rituals in the 21st Century certainly aren’t what they used to be, but they could be a lot worse. What if compatibility were encouraged by basing it on the most superficial of qualities? What’s more, what if being coupled were mandatory, regardless of one’s desire for it, putting pressure on singles to become partnered at all costs? And, under such compulsory conditions, what would it mean to really love someone (if that were even possible)? Those are just some of the questions raised in the offbeat, thought-provoking comedy-drama, “The Lobster” (web site, trailer), available on DVD, Blu-ray disc and video on demand.

When a middle-aged architect (Colin Farrell) suddenly finds himself single, he’s whisked off to a special hotel where he’s given 45 days to find a new mate from among the other guests. The circumstances are far from ideal, though; the guests are largely dispassionate, mechanically going through the motions of dating, looking for anything to latch onto that might hint at potential compatibility. Singles who mutually possess seemingly insignificant traits, like walking with a limp, acting heartlessly or being prone to nosebleeds, see these mundane qualities as possible foundations for romantic kismet. Finding that amorous magic is important, too, considering that the price of failure is being turned into an animal (of the guest’s choice, of course).

If all that weren’t bad enough, hotel guests must be particularly careful not to do anything that smacks of individuality for fear of being labeled “loners,” relationship scofflaws who militantly lead lives on their own but who run the risk of being hunted down (literally) for their antisocial transgressions. Even those who engage in the simplest expressions of individuality, like acts of self-love, risk harsh reprimands for such heinous crimes.

Looking for love in a world bereft of meaningful emotion poses quite a challenge for a pair of loners (Colin Farrell, left, and Rachel Weisz, right) in the unusual and moving satirical comedy-drama, “The Lobster.” Photo courtesy of A24.

With his days running short and his prospects of finding a mate dwindling, the architect makes his escape from the hotel, finding his way to a loosely organized colony of loners. Once there, however, he finds life almost as dogmatic as mainstream society, forced to obey the dictates of the group’s Napoleonic leader (Léa Seydoux). Anything even remotely hinting at being coupled is severely punished, which becomes quite problematic for our hero when he meets a fellow loner who proves to be a genuine romantic interest (Rachel Weisz). As he seeks to straddle these two polarized worlds, he’s increasingly faced with a dilemma of “damned if you do, and damned if you do.”

“The Lobster” is one of the most unusual – and most provocative – films to come along in quite a while. Its decidedly bizarre humor and wry symbolism work wonders in skewering everything from the current superficial state of courting rituals and relationship matters to the pressures of social conformity, regardless of which end of the ideological spectrum one resides. The picture regrettably becomes a little bogged down in the second hour, going off on tangents that could have easily been deleted, but, on balance, “The Lobster” represents a thoughtful, satirical look at where we stand as a society – and, one hopes, where we’ll resist the temptation to go.

Quirky though the film may be, it nevertheless earned its share of recognition in 2016 and 2015 awards competitions. During the 2016 awards season, “The Lobster” received well-deserved Oscar and Critics Choice Award nominations for best original screenplay, and Farrell captured a surprise (but pleasantly so) Golden Globe nod for best actor in a comedy. But the picture had its greatest success at the Cannes Film Festival, where it picked up three awards and a nomination for the Palme d’Or, the event’s highest honor. In addition, during the 2015 awards season, the film received a BAFTA Award nomination for best British film. That’s quite a haul for a movie with such an esoteric story line. But, given the cautionary tale nature of its story, it’s fortunate for us all that it struck such a poignant chord.

A full review is available by clicking here.

Copyright © 2017, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.