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Transatlantic ambition: The Special Relationship (2010) ~ Review

September 28, 2010

Directed by: Richard Loncraine

Starring: Michael Sheen, Dennis Quaid, Hope Davis, Helen McCrory, Mark Bazeley, Adam Godley

Screenplay by: Peter Morgan

UK/ US; 93 minutes; Colour; Certificate: n/a


Ah, the special relationship… Two fellers so damned close politically, socially and in personality they could be brothers. What will they do together? Will they actually come together do anything? And who will genuinely hold the reigns? No, I’m not talking about the Milibands, Ed and David, silly – I’m talking about Blair and Clinton, Tony and Bill.

Ever since the ancient Greek tragedies, dramatists have always been fond of trilogies and, like so many before them, the makers of The Deal (2003) and The Queen (2006) clearly felt that three is the magic number. Indeed, like its two  preceding dramas, The Special Relationship was written by Frost/Nixon (2008) and the next Bond film scribe Peter Morgan and stars Michael Sheen as former British PM Tony Blair. Unlike those two dramas, however, both of which were helmed by Stephen Frears, the shots on this one were called by Richard Loncraine, director of Richard III (1995), Wimbledon (2004) and Firewall (2006) – actually, Morgan himself had considered directing, but backed out at the last minute. And like The Deal, The Special Relationship went straight to TV (made as it was by the BBC and HBO), but unlike The Queen, which made it into cinemas first, and from so doing successfully reaped the benefits (including an Oscar for Helen Mirren’s portrayal as Queen Elizabeth II).

So what to make of that? More of the same quality Blair impersonation from Sheen? More clever scenes and incisive, witty dialogue from Morgan? And could the fact that this effort went directly to TV instead of the flicks say anything about its real quality? Well, the answer to all three questions is, frankly, yes.

The Deal dealt with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s supposed agreement over the leadership of the Labour Party made at Islington’s Granita restaurant in the early ’90s; The Queen dealt with Blair’s ‘handling’ of The Queen and the Royals following Princess Diana’s death in 1997; and The Special Relationship deals with, nattily, not the relationship between Blair and Dubya, but the earlier one between Blair and Bush Jr.’s Presidential predecessor, Bill Clinton.

This nicely ensures that, like the finale to all good trilogies, The Special Relationship brings a satisfying chronological closure to its protagonist’s story (in The Deal, Blair the leader was in genesis; in The Queen he was taking the reigns and finding his feet domestically; and here he’s consolidating and setting up the seeds of his legacy – his foreign policy). Unquestionably, that’s one of the good things about this film; it’s smartly and well thought-out – although Blair and Bill’s work together focused most memorably on forcing Serbia out of Kosovo, the forming of Tone’s self-defining ideology of removing rogue dictators in unstable states (think Sadam Hussein) is clearly on the agenda. And, to this end, the thing’s well, tightly plotted too (Morgan’s a good screenwriter for sure, and Loncraine an able storyteller) – indeed, it’s not giving away too much to say that all that goes on leads up to the final scene’s message that ‘Iraq inevitably will be next’. All good, all enjoyable and all satisfying then.

Or is it? Well, for me, must admit, all of it’s laid on a little thickly. Unlike in the finely judged The Queen, in which fantasised scenes between Blair, The Queen and their people were for the most part intelligently, subtly underplayed (so the feeling that the filmmakers may be overplaying their hand when it came to fantasy-versus-reality never arose), here one or two too many of the situations, spins on real events and scenes themselves seem a little too over-cooked, and some of the brushstrokes creating them feel a little too broad. While it may be fair to say that Loncraine isn’t as talented a filmmaker as Frears (the latter being surely being one of Britain’s very best), methinks it’s also only fair to say that Morgan’s script tries to blur fantasy and reality a tad too much – again not to give too much away as an example here, but the British PM not knowing that ‘POTUS’ is an acronym for ‘President of the United States’ until he gets to the White House on his first visit comes across as naff indeed. I know what it’s an acronym for and I’m not even Prime Minister. And would Blair, as golden-touched as even he was back then, have ever got away with walking out of PMQs while his opposite number, William Hague, was speaking? Would he eccers like.

To that end, Sheen’s performance too feels less effective than in the earlier two films – especially compared to the middle one. Here, a little too often it feels like he’s playing Blair as a wide-eyed kid in a sweetshop, whereas in The Queen the character was impish and eager, sure, but also felt a more calculated and canny politico. In the latter you could imagine he’d just won a landslide election victory; in the former you’re almost left to wonder how he’d managed it. Still, for all that, Sheen is still unquestionably good value, while the other major player, Quaid as the eponymous Clinton, is spot on the money. His is a measured, perfectly poised interpretation of a wisely veteran heavyweight fighting to stay off the canvas (the drama nicely involves the Monica Lewinsky debacle) – quite simply, I have never seen Quaid this good, let alone better.

The supporting players too are up to scratch. Hope Davis’ Hillary is a very effective recreation and Helen McCrory’s Cherie is less impersonation, more interpretation (as it was in The Queen), and well done. However, there is an undisputed letdown among the players, as spin doctor-cum-adviser extraordinaire Alastair Campbell, Mark Bazely may get some great one-liners, but his performance is so broad it’s straight out of a Rory Bremner sketch (having said that, the Prince Charles in The Queen was just as unconvincing, if memory serves correctly).

So overall then, The Special Relationship is intelligently, wittily and entertainingly done – maybe not as intelligently, wittily and entertainingly done as exactly this sort of thing’s been done before, but there you go, it is a second sequel after all. My advice then is, like with Braveheart, don’t go thinking that this drama necessarily gives you the genuine article –  just as it’s highly unlikely William Wallace sired England’s King Edward III, it’s pretty unlikely Blair sired his foreign policy in exactly the manner it’s shown here.

The Special Relationship is not available on Region 2 DVD at present, but is available to buy on Region 1 DVD here.

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