Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Richard Loncraine
Stars: Michael Sheen, Dennis Quaid, Hope Davis, Helen McCrory.
“The special relationship” was a phrase coined by Winston Churchill to describe the strong alliance between the US and England, particularly after World War Two. In this drama, the term also applies to the strong friendship that developed between US President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. It was friendship based on political expediency, but throughout a tumultuous decade the pair supported each other, offering advice, and bolstering their flagging popularity when necessary.
The relationship began in 1992 when Blair, then the Opposition Leader, flew to Washington to seek advice from Clinton’s top aides on how to win the forthcoming election. With Clinton’s support, Blair won in a landslide, and led the Labour Party out of the political wilderness and into government. The tyro politician still had a lot to learn about politics and wooing the voters and appeasing the people by subtly changing his party’s policies, but the wily Clinton offered him plenty of tips. In return Blair supported Clinton at the height of the infamous sex scandal that threatened to derail his administration.
Written by playwright Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon, etc) The Special Relationship is a fascinating exploration of politics, power and personalities, and marks the third film in his trilogy following Blair’s career. As usual, Morgan has done his research, and has drawn on historical records to put words in the mouths of his characters. But he has also created a number of fictional scenarios to add drama to the material. And director Richard Loncraine (Richard III, Wimbledon, etc) has incorporated plenty of archival footage to add context and texture to the drama and give it an almost documentary like resonance.
The Special Relationship covers all the key events of the Clinton years, including the Monica Lewinski affair, and the decision to send troops into Serbia to stop the war and prevent further “ethnic cleansing.” Blair’s impassioned speech to the British Parliament about the need to step in and stop dictators perfectly sets up the invasion of Iraq many years later. The film looks at how the balance of power between the two men shifted, with Blair emerging as the consummate politician, revealing hidden strength and a ruthless ambition beneath his boyish looks and charming exterior. In fact, at one stage Blair is the most popular politician on the planet, and even 70% of Americans wanted him to be their President.
Much of the success of The Special Relationship lies in the casting of the main characters, which is spot on. This is the third time that Michael Sheen has played Tony Blair on screen, and he is intimately familiar with the character and brings instant credibility to his performance. Helen McCrory played Cherie Blair in The Queen, and reprises her role here. The couple instantly develops a rapport and their relationship seems warm and comfortable.
The film draws a contrast and comparison between their more informal relationship and that of the Clintons, a powerful couple working together to shape their country. Hope Davis replacing Julianne Moore, is excellent as Hilary Clinton, and she perfectly captures her cold, calculating personality and her pragmatic style. While Dennis Quaid doesn’t physically resemble Bill Clinton, he captures his essence through mannerisms, speech inflections and loads of charisma.
The Special Relationship is a fascinating and intelligently crafted look at the politics and personalities that shaped the ‘90’s and gives some insights into how they also shaped the events of the new millennium. It also suggests why Blair was able to develop such a strong relationship with Clinton’s successor George Bush, even though his political orientation was vastly different.