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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 14, 2017 - Volume 45 Issue 28
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
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Creatively intelligent Journey a fascinating piece of historical fantasy
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE JOURNEY
Now playing


During the 2006 peace talks between the Irish Republican Army and members of the British Government, staunch loyalist and revered Protestant religious leader Ian Paisley and Sinn Féin representative Martin McGuinness ended up on the same plane heading back to Ireland. The pair had never spoken to one another until that flight. While what was said remains an unknown, the assumption is that this brief conversation was the breakthrough that helped set the foundation for an agreement, Paisley and McGuinness going on to be named First Minister and deputy First Minister of Ireland in May of 2007.

Director Nick Hamm (Killing Bono) and writer Colin Bateman (Wild About Harry) play a fanciful game of what-if as it pertains to their drama The Journey, the pair imagining what potentially might have been said by Paisley (Timothy Spall) and McGuinness (Colm Meaney) during that 2006 trip. Moving the action off of the plane and into a car driven by a friendly chauffeur named Jack (Freddie Highmore), the movie plays out in something close to real time, this fictionalized take on their meeting a clever flight of fancy I thoroughly enjoyed.

Unsurprisingly, there's not a lot in the way of plot. With Paisley wanting to return to Northern Ireland for his 50th wedding anniversary, McGuinness sees an opportunity to speak with his adversary alone, asking to hitch a ride under the assumption that if they travel together there will be no chance of an assassination attempt on either man. With British Prime Minister Tony Blair's (Toby Stephens) blessing, veteran political operative and negotiator Harry Patterson (John Hurt) engineers things so that the car transporting the two will take the long way to the airport. He wants to give Paisley and McGuinness as much time alone as he can, hoping they'll find some common ground which will allow the peace talks to move forward and lead to a resolution Protestant and Catholic alike will be satisfied with.

That's pretty much it. McGuinness tries to get Paisley to engage with him. Jack feigns ignorance as to who the two men are. Patterson monitors things as best he can remotely, trying to engineer little speed bumps in order to get the two men talking. And through it all, Paisley attempts to maintain an air of authoritative moral superiority as he measures the mettle of all involved, McGuinness in particular, trying to ascertain if this is a man he can work with no matter how great the differences between them might be.

There's a lot of talking going on, and that's entirely by design. But while most of it has a believable tone and patter, there are instances where things can feel more overtly theatrical than it's likely either Hamm or Bateman intend. Additionally, unlike somewhat similar dramas ranging from Stephen Frears' The Queen to Steven Knight's Locke, there are instances where the script gets a little bludgeoning in regards to the points it is trying to get across and the themes it is attempting to address. As to the plot dynamics concerning Jack, they're both obvious and a little silly, and if not for Highmore's giddy ability to be so gosh darn likable the character would likely have ended up being nothing short of ridiculous.

Thankfully, when the movie hits, it does so magnificently. This is a look at the Irish 'Troubles' that frankly I've never seen before, the deft balancing act the majority of the drama manages to maintain consistently enthralling. What's even nicer is that Hamm and Bateman manage to subvert expectation on multiple occasions, most notably during a churchyard conversation where McGuinness bares his soul only to have Paisley not respond in the manner most conventional dramas would have boringly forced him to. This allows the film to resonate on a far more meaningful level than it ever would have achieved otherwise, putting the history these men have witnessed, influenced and survived into a complexly thought-provoking perspective that pulls very few punches.

Spall and Meaney are superb, each veteran character actor reveling in the opportunity Hamm has gifted them. The former is practically unrecognizable as the controversial religious and political leader, his bellicose rigidity concealing a psychological tactician who understands people more intimately than many realize. As for Meaney, he's wonderful as well, and while he can't quite shed his natural mannerisms or familiar cinematic persona, he still gives McGuinness a lived-in gravitas that seems to fit the IRA and Sinn Féin leader nicely.

I don't know a lot of the true-life dynamics that went into this peace accord. I'm slightly sure a case could be made that Hamm and Bateman minimize, if ever so slightly, all the hard work that went on by so many to see this conflict ended and a new Ireland born for all the world to see. But Paisley and McGuinness did meet, and whatever was said between the two of them did help pave the way for the pair to govern in friendly tandem. The Journey does not claim to be historical fact, but that doesn't make the creatively intelligent fiction it muses on any less fascinating.


Celebrating compromise:

Nick Hamm on making The Journey a trip worth taking
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

Nick Hamm's The Journey is an intriguing flight of fancy. Inspired by a story involving Protestant religious leader Ian Paisley, a staunch British loyalist, and Sinn Féin representative Martin McGuinness, a high-ranking commander in the Irish Republican Army, the Killing Bono filmmaker was inspired to do something a bit unusual. As the story goes, during the 2006 peace talks in Scotland, the two men, who had never spoken a word to one another publicly, found themselves on the same flight back to Ireland. What was said, what they talked about, all of it was, still is, a closely guarded secret. But it planted a seed that blossomed into a full-blown peace accord, the two men respectively becoming First Minister and deputy First Minister of Ireland in May of 2007.

Hamm, inspired by this story, couldn't help but wonder what it might have been the two men spent their time talking about during this trip. 'I thought that the relationship between these guys was so incredibly interesting,' the director mused. 'I thought that, basically, this was one of the most interesting contemporary political relationships that I had ever come across. Here were two people who were severely opposed to each other on every level, and kind of hated each other with every fiber of their being, and yet managed to peel beyond that constituency and that base to other people and create a situation in Northern Ireland where they opened the door to peace.'

Having watched The Journey during this summer's Seattle International Film Festival, I had the opportunity to briefly touch base with the filmmaker via phone a couple weeks after its local screening. We spoke at length about numerous aspects of the film's creation, most notably on the essential themes Hamm wanted to emphasize. 'The fact is that this relationship changed history and it made history,' he states. 'It facilitated people to stop killing each other. That was the truth. That's the truth of it. What I did is I fictionalized this one part of a relationship that took years to come about. I think I fictionalized the essence of it, this relationship, because in the end I thought it was such an extraordinary testament to peace.'

Working with screenwriter Colin Bateman, Hamm moved the location of this meeting between Paisley and McGuinness to a car transporting the two to the airport being driven by a supposedly clueless chauffeur (portrayed by Freddie Highmore) clandestinely working for highly esteemed British negotiator Harry Patterson (John Hurt). Revered character actors Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney portray Paisley and McGuinness, the two seasoned veterans having a grand time verbally sparring back and forth as they bring these men to life.

Even so, by necessity the filmmakers had to blur the line between fact and fiction. 'I tell you what,' explains Hamm. 'The actual plane ride was real. There were more people on the plane than just [them]. It was actually a private jet. They were flying them back to [Northern Ireland] for Paisley's 50th wedding anniversary and there were two or three other people on that plane, a couple of government ministers. I saw video footage, because somebody had actually recorded 15 seconds of those two guys talking with each other because they realized it was actually a historic moment.

'What they both said in that situation? There is no such thing as political absolute truth. That somehow gave us the license to dramatize what we thought would be a great story. In the end, it's kind of a feel-good buddy movie. It's like The Odd Couple in the back of a car.'

For this what-if scenario to work, it would take a pair of terrific actors to pull it off. Hamm found them in Spall and Meaney, and he never for a second failed to appreciate just how lucky he was to get them to play the parts of Paisley and McGuinness. 'It's really brilliant to watch amazing actors at the top of their game do something as powerful,' says the appreciative director. 'I've watched it now in many different countries, with so many different audiences, and everybody responds to the power of those performances and what they ultimately deliver, which is an incredible amount of humor and a lot of emotion.'

Much of that humor and emotion is born from Bateman's intelligently layered script. Even though the idea for The Journey was his, Hamm knew it was vital that he let his screenwriter come up with the ins and outs of the actual story for himself. 'Yeah, that is true,' responds the filmmaker. 'I came up with the idea, but then as a director you can't really legislate [the script]. It's all about execution. It's all about whether a writer can pull it off. If they can't pull it off then it doesn't matter how good the idea is, it just won't work.

'What Colin did, I think, is compose something both intimate and public. He sort of managed to put two very public people in a private setting, and make them very, very human and very, very identifiable. As two politicians who reached beyond their base and reached beyond their own constituency, securing something that was pretty remarkable.'

But in telling that story, it was key that both the writer and director were on the same page thematically. It would have been very easy for the script to turn preachy, to beat the viewer over the head didactically with the themes and ideas Hamm and Bateman were hoping to address. This was a trap the director was determined to avoid. 'That's actually the entire job of what we did in the editing room and the shooting of [the film],' says Hamm. 'Each guy is kind of like a boxer in a boxing match, and they go round to round with each other. You watch a scene, you think McGuinness won this one or Paisley won that one. What you need is to be able to cut away from the boxing match, so that the audience can breathe a little bit, and understand the context a little more and maybe follow a little bit of the peace story and see some of the great countryside, not just arbitrarily but in a cinematic way. You keep the movie going but when you cut back to them the audience wants to cut back to [Paisley and McGuinness]. They want to see them. They want to be part of those scenes.

'That's the trick of it. If every time you cut back to the guys the audience is going, 'Oh God, not again,' you'd be in real trouble. But because the reverse is true, they want to see what [Paisley and McGuinness] are doing. Also, there's the time limit. We all know they're going to the airport. So you know you're not in the car forever. So you know you're gonna throw all these different curveballs in there whereby the car gets a puncture and they end up walking through that churchyard. There's a lot of stuff that happens to them to make the car journey longer. But you still have to get to the airport. You have got to be plausible with that, because otherwise the audience won't accept the fictional reality of what's going on.'

Even with a few excursions outside, the bulk of the film does take place inside an automobile, the difficulties of shooting these conversations between the two men in a manner that would be consistently compelling not lost on the filmmaker. 'I'm really, really, really good at shooting dialogue in cars,' he says with a laugh. 'We sort of had a mobile studio. We took over a massive stretch of freeway and put the cameras in there with the actors. It was about rolling with the changes all the time, using the right shots and finding the best performance.'

As terrific as Spall and Meaney are inside the car, it is the moments when they step outside that hit home with the most emotional forcefulness, a key sequence in a church graveyard in particular. McGuinness recollects on his life, the orders he's given to his men and the violence those decisions have sometimes led to. It's a heartfelt moment of honest recollection, but one that very easily could have lapsed into melodramatic treacle had Hamm and Bateman followed typical narrative convention.

'I'm so glad you point this scene out,' the director states proudly. 'I think it's probably my favorite scene in the movie. We all think [Paisley] is gonna wrap his arms around McGuinness and tell him not to worry, that it will all be fine. That he agrees with his adversary. That this was a terrible thing. But Paisley doesn't do that. It's his last attack on McGuinness, isn't it? He realizes that he's maybe gone a little too far but it's still a very clever scene because it's the right scene. That's completely what would happen. I think it's a great surprise, that scene. And Spall just nails it.'

That's not the only moment Spall is extraordinary, the veteran character actor having an even more explosive moment at a gas station after their driver's credit card is turned down by a clueless attendant who has no idea who it is he's refueling. 'He kind of did become Paisley in that moment,' says Hamm. 'It's funny, trying to shoot that scene, because we were in the middle of the night at this small little gas station in the middle of nowhere and it was howling with rain. He couldn't get it; he couldn't get the speech. He felt it was way too tricky and we kept pausing filming and finally I told him to just go take ten minutes. Tim went off, sat down and listened to some of Paisley's speeches. He just walked back in and sort of did it. He had found the tone for it. Even people in Northern Ireland, they kind of rock with laughter when this scene happens.'

As we chat about the actors, the conversation cannot help but turn towards the late, great John Hurt, his appearance here as Harry Patterson, one of his last. 'He was ill,' says Hamm matter-of-factly. 'We knew he was very sick when he was shooting the movie. But John wanted to make the film; he wanted to say those words. I think he wanted to work up until the very last moment. There was a massive sense of denial with John, that he was actually as sick as he was. But everyone knew it, and he knew it, too. He couldn't sustain many hours on set. He could only do a bit, and then we'd have to send him away so he could rest and then he'd come back again. But I'm so glad he is in the film, that he played this part. His voice and his presence, I don't know, it makes the movie eternal in some way.'

In the end, the story at the heart of The Journey is one Hamm feels audiences will respond to, this tale of reconciliation and forgiveness in the face of decades of mistrust and hatred one he feels has special resonance during this current tumultuous political climate. 'The film is timely,' he states unequivocally, 'and it is becoming more timely. The movie is a celebration of conciliation. It's funny and it's humane and it makes you have a very big emotional response to it. But, ultimately, it is a celebration of concession and a celebration of compromise.

'In a world where we practice intransigence at a kind of heavy level, it seems to me we're in a period of time where politicians don't speak beyond their base, that they only speak to their constituents. The movie shows two very brave people who choose not to do that, taking their constituents with them on a perilous journey towards compromise. It seems to me that's what we're ultimately celebrating with the picture; compromise and the ability to live together.'


Joyous Lost in Paris a farcical delight
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

LOST IN PARIS
Now playing


Asked to come to Paris by her beloved Aunt Martha (Emmanuelle Riva), a former dancer currently waltzing away from nurses and doctors intent on placing her in a retirement home, Canadian librarian Fiona (Fiona Gordon) grabs her gigantic bright red backpack and quickly makes her way to Europe. Once she gets there things quickly spiral out of control leaving her literally wet behind the ears. If losing all her identification, money and belongings wasn't bad enough, it also turns out that Martha herself is missing, maybe even dead. With only a flibbertigibbet homeless man named Dom (Dominique Abel) to assist her, Fiona makes her way through Paris in a desperate search for her aunt, never losing an ounce of the hope in her heart as one catastrophe after another is arbitrarily tossed in her direction.

From the minds of idiosyncratic filmmakers Gordon and Abel (The Fairy, Rumba), the pair's latest absurdist frolic Lost in Paris is as close to a modern Jacques Tati comedy as any I am likely ever to see. Blatantly calling to mind that French genius' finest works like Monsieur Hulot's Holiday or Mon Oncle, this comedy is a whimsical whirligig of nonsense and insight, real life and fantasy crashing into one another with witty abandon. It's a joyous lark, and while character development is minimal, the gleefully ridiculous ebullience of the narrative is so intoxicating one almost doesn't notice there's precious little in the way of substance to any of the lunacy.

Almost. It did take me a little time to get into the swing of what Gordon and Abel were doing, and as talented as the filmmakers might be they struggle to maintain a consistent comedic tone. Also, unlike Tati their stabs at delivering any sort of social or political commentary rarely hit their targets, and as such the level of emotional authenticity that films like Playtime always seemed to manufacture with such effortless ease seldom materializes here. Instead, it all plays like a series of expertly staged vignettes working towards a common goal, the connective tissue holding these scenes together so tenuous it's a moderately large surprise things end up working nearly as well as they ultimately do.

It certainly helps that both Gordon and Abel are deft physical comedians, both so willing to throw themselves headfirst into any sort of gag the chance the viewer won't find at least a small handful of things to chortle boisterously over is practically nonexistent. More, as directors the duo are so good at generating a sense of merry contentment that even moments of supposed tragedy, disappointment or anger have a craftily manufactured edge of delectable delight to them, my smile never leaving my face for even a second of the film's 83 minutes.

But the ace in the hole is the late, great Emmanuelle Riva. The legendary actress appears to be having an outright blast, and her continued sense of elation as she walks around wearing her flip-flops throughout the streets of Paris is giddily palpable. Gordon and Abel stage as perfect a musical number as anything I could have dreamt of, Riva and fellow French icon Pierre Richard dancing with pretty much their feet and their feet alone as they sit on a quiet bench, the beatific energy of this sequence sending my heart soaring into the stratosphere to the point I might have shed a couple of jubilant tears.

That's Lost in Paris in a nutshell. While not particularly deep, while not too profound, Gordon and Abel are so intent on making the viewer smile, so obsessed with having each person sitting in the audience fill their hearts with happiness and love, coming up with something bad to say about the film proves to be impossible. As bits of fluffy fun are concerned this motion picture is a dance of delicious amusements, watching it an absolute pleasure I'm certain to indulge in whenever the opportunity to do so might fortuitously arise.






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Letters
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Tori Amos coming to Seattle in November, Melissa Etheridge to play Washington State Fair
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Creatively intelligent Journey a fascinating piece of historical fantasy
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Celebrating compromise:

Nick Hamm on making The Journey a trip worth taking

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Joyous Lost in Paris a farcical delight
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