The Special Relationship
THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP. Starring Michael Sheen, Dennis Quaid, Hope Davis, and Helen McCrory. Directed by Richard Loncraine. Rated M (Sexual references and infrequent coarse language). 93 min.
This is the third film in the trilogy by Peter Morgan, who wrote the screen play for this movie. The trilogy dramatizes the political career of Tony Blair, who was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1997 to 2007. The first two films dealt with Blair’s relationship with Bill Clinton and George Bush, both past presidents of the USA. This third film extends the relationship between Blair and Clinton where the previous film left off. Emphasis is on Blair’s international activities as prime minister, and what he learnt from his relationship with Clinton.
“The special relationship” is a phrase used by Winston Churchill to express the political and historical relationships that have existed over time between the leaders of Great Britain, and the United States. The film covers the period where Clinton gave patronage to Blair, which was weakened morally by his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Blair’s stature rose politically by knowing Clinton. There was a natural affiliation between the two men, and both had charisma that influenced other people to support them. First, Clinton asked Blair to visit him, which raised the political stakes prior to Blair’s election, Clinton helped Blair as Prime Minister broker peace in Northern Ireland, and Blair learnt much from Clinton on how to win support with a brand of liberalism they both shared. Then, as misgivings about the Lewinsky affair, and the associated cry for Clinton’s impeachment became more vocal, Clinton put all his energy into defending himself, while Blair faced the international crises that surrounded them both. Blair gave leadership that the world recognised, which Clinton might otherwise have provided.
The movie itself has appeared on television overseas in US and Canada, but as yet it has not been shown on television in Australia. The actor who takes the role of Blair (Michael Sheen) has played Blair in two other movies. His performance here is outstanding, and Dennis Quaid, with weight on and a grey wig in place, does a very good impression of Clinton. But perhaps the person who steals the show by making the character she plays her very own, as well as mimicking the woman she is supposed to be, is Hope Davis. She takes the role of Hilary Rodham Clinton, and her every gesture is unnervingly accurate.
This film, for all its revelations, is less integrated than it might have been. It deals intriguingly with the political ramifications of the relationship between Blair and Clinton, but it also goes into distracting matters like how the Blairs (Tony and Cherie) happened to feel about the Cintons (Bill and Hilary), and vice versa. When the film does that, its dramatic impact is weakened. Moving out of the political arena into the realm of social gossip is entertaining, but it manages to put some weighty issues, such as the relationship between US and Britain, the Kosovo crisis, and the Western Alliance invasion of Yugoslavia on hold.
The film has some marvellous archival footage, but the Clinton-Presidency and the Blair-Prime Ministership have now receded into the past. For those who lived through both these men’s turbulent political lives, the film maintains interest. But it is the knowledge of what happened to Blair afterwards that sustains our attention the most.
The real impact of the movie comes from joining the past with the future. Blair used “the special relationship” with Clinton to grow in personal and political strength, but he discarded Clinton, when Clinton was weakened by the Lewinsky affair, and Blair’s stand with Yugoslavia gave him the kind of moral leadership he needed.
The film finishes provocatively by showing Blair using his special relationship with the incoming Bush to advance his own political ambitions. The so-called special relationship that once gave power and influence to Blair came home to haunt him, as the western world struggled later to understand and accept Blair’s committed endorsement of Bush’s decision to invade Iraq.
Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out August 5th 2010.