Screenwriter Peter Morgan and actor Michael Sheen ventured into the life and career of British Prime Minister Tony Blair three times, with tremendous success. The Queen is by far the best known of these films, but this week I recommend the conclusion of the trilogy: 2010’s The Special Relationship.
The film begins with a wet-behind-the-ears Tony Blair (Sheen) being briefed on how Bill Clinton’s (Dennis Quaid) third way brought Democrats back to power in the U.S. Fast forward to Blair’s own resounding 1997 victory, and a congratulatory phone call from the POTUS he so admires (Blair hanging up on Jacques Chirac to take the call is one of the movie’s many funny and satisfying moments). Soon the Blairs arrives in Washington for an in person meeting. Tony is star struck, but his wife Cherie (Helen McCrory) is more skeptical of the slick Arkansan. Cherie does however admire the steel of the First Lady (Hope Davis), even while wondering why she puts up with Bill’s skirt chasing. The relationship between the world leaders develops further, with an initial triumph in Belfast followed by the Lewinsky scandal, which reverses the dynamic between a now-weakened President and a rising, more confident Prime Minister. They then cross swords over Bosnia, with profound consequences for their relationship as well as for the lessons Blair will take forward in his dealings with the next U.S. President.
If you are a political junkie and/or an Anglophile, this is compulsively watchable stuff. The events are recent enough to be well recalled by the audience, but the insider perspective of the movie enlivens those happenings rather than boring us with what we already know. The film is also professionally made from stem to stern. Stephen Frears did not sign on for the third installment of the series, but he was succeeded by another worthy of British directing, Richard Loncraine, so the series does not skip a beat in that department. Even the actors in the smaller parts make a strong impression.
In an age when intelligent dialogue is disappearing from film, Morgan’s screenplay is an oasis in the desert. Although some of the exchanges between the characters are imagined, sufficient research went into the script that everything feels plausible. The script is craftily constructed to reveal character structurally: Cherie and Tony pad around their kitchen minding their kids and digging through the laundry for lost shirts, but Bill and Hillary are generally shown as the power couple who are thoroughgoing politicians even when the news cameras are not rolling. The script gives the Clintons no real domestic life (Chelsea never appears). Even their private moments brim with impression management and campaign messaging, most painfully when Bill lies to Hillary about his relationship with Lewinsky and then, guilt-wracked, watches her on television as she gamely denies everything on his behalf.
Last but definitely not least, the film provides a plausible explanation for why Blair befriended his ideological opposite, George W. Bush, and went on to immerse his country in two wildly unpopular wars. The Bosnian success that resulted from a mix of good intentions and grandiose Churchillian aspirations was apparently easy to overgeneralize. The script also hints in its excellent closing scenes that Blair’s personal desire to be a player on the world stage ultimately overcame whatever policy goals he had at the beginning of his career (Indeed, the film questions whether those goals were even genuinely valued before his election).
This film recalls Sinclair Lewis’ observation that men can seem completely different on the surface while being exactly the same underneath, whereas women who seem the same on the surface can be completely different underneath. As Cherie and Hillary, the lead actresses are utterly credible, and they peel their characters like onions, progressively revealing new layers. McCrory and Davis deserve plaudits for giving full-blooded performances rather than merely impersonating their real-life counterparts.
At this point in his career, Sheen could have played Blair in his sleep. But he doesn’t sleep, turning in another strong performance as the British Prime Minister. As President Clinton, a heavily made-up Dennis Quaid easily surpasses John Travolta’s half-baked impression in Primary Colors (another film with a terrific portrayal of Hillary, that time by Emma Thompson). But of the four leads, his performance is somewhat less compelling for reasons that are hard to put one’s finger on. Perhaps Bill Clinton is simply a hard part to play for anyone other than Bill Clinton.
The Special Relationship did not receive quite as strong reviews as did the first two entries in the trilogy (The Queen and The Deal), perhaps because some critics felt it was a case of too many trips to the same well. But if like me you find real politics more engaging than the goings on of the royal family, you will enjoy The Special Relationship as a meatier film than The Queen. The movie brings home the apocryphal Foreign Office quip that the two most important things in the world are love and Anglo-American relations.