After exploring life behind royal curtains in The Queen, changing-room politics in English soccer with The Damned United, and the man-to-man drama of the television interview in Frost/Nixon, screenwriter Peter Morgan has turned his attention to Anglo-American affairs in a study of Tony Blair and the way he and Bill Clinton navigated the politics of their era, frequently looking to each other for support – in both personal and national matters.
Directed by Richard Loncraine, The Special Relationship lacks the bite of Morgan’s previous work (which also included the superb Last King of Scotland). Moving away from his frequent hunting ground of the 1970’s, Morgan’s challenge here is how to create a drama with more recent and better known events, and – as this is not the documentary form – to imagine the private worlds of two well known world leaders, and take us to spaces where we can see a dramatised version of how the two men respond to the difficulties of high office.
This is the third time Michael Sheen has played Tony Blair on screen, but this version seems a less confident and self-assured man than either his previous portrayals or the popular perception of the real Blair. Here the British Prime Minister seems in a permanent state of self-doubt, and a little too eager to absorb what his American counterpart has to offer. Dennis Quaid as Bill Clinton sounds the part but has less of the curiosity, boyish charm and charisma of the man who swept Americans off their feet for a brief but important moment in contemporary political history. In the private places where we see the two men – bathrooms and bedrooms, official cars and jets – the Sheen and Quaid versions of the two leaders are prone to respond to crisis by lapsing into deep thought rather than anything more emotional. With both writer and director taking this safe option, the result is a dramatically flat narrative, with little at stake to hold our attention beyond the retelling of the events of Kosovo, The Lewinsky Affair and the Northern Ireland peace process.
What little spice there is in the film comes from the two beautifully assured performances of Helen McCrory as Cherie Blair and Hope Davis as Hillary Clinton. Both strong and independent women, these two provide us with some of the films most interesting moments –intimate and insightful quips they throw in the direction of their husbands as expert witnesses.
Originally made for television by the BBC and HBO, the movie may interest keen followers of the Blair-Clinton era, but I couldn’t help thinking that the documentary footage which bookended the film was more insightful than the drama in between.