wed 21/03/2018

The Special Relationship, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

The Special Relationship, BBC Two

The Special Relationship, BBC Two

Does Michael Sheen's third shot at Tony Blair overstay its welcome?

Michael Sheen as Tony Blair (left) and Dennis Quaid as Bill Clinton, getting along like a house on fire

The double act between screenwriter Peter Morgan and his favoured leading man Michael Sheen has given us some of the most teasingly enjoyable dramas of recent years, but how much genuine insight they've given us into Tony Blair or New Labour remains a moot point. A typically sour Alastair Campbell told Radio Times this week that this third shot at Blair was well wide of the mark - "The gap between what actually happened and what is portrayed is even bigger in The Special Relationship than in The Queen." Maybe he's right, but since it's Campbell saying it, there's little incentive to believe it.

Of course, the unbridgeable gap between fact, fiction, the known and the unknown suits everyone. Morgan and Sheen have hit upon their own nifty brand of docutainment (a genre which also includes their gripping but brazenly fictionalised Frost/Nixon), where they can push the imaginative envelope almost as far as they like because a definitive version of events, if anybody were capable of creating one, will never be made public. Tony Blair gets to tell his own version in his autobiography, hilariously garlanded by quotes from the Queen which Morgan claims he invented but Blair insists are authentic regal utterances, while Alastair Campbell can keep up his grumbling barrage of diversionary fire while he fades into a long twilight. It's like an alloy of fact, fantasy and interpretation, where nobody knows where the boundaries lie and, if there's any blame to be apportioned, nobody knows where it went.

Best, then, to sit back and enjoy the entertainment, and chortle at the jokes. Central to The Special Relationship's narrative is the contrast between Blair's awkward relations with the EU (drolly evoked in the scene where he speaks comical schoolboy French at a Euro-press conference) and his ecstatic vision of the Anglo-American alliance, the historic "Special Relationship" he wants to rekindle with Clinton. Opting for slapstick over subtlety, Morgan depicts the newly elected Blair crassly hanging up on Jacques Chirac in mid-sentence so he can rush to take Bill Clinton's congratulatory call, much as you imagine the teenaged guitar-playing Blair might have reacted to an overture from Mick Jagger.
HillaryDennis Quaid has brought a gravelly weight to the Clinton role which lends him a sense of inner conflict which Sheen's Blair lacks, though that may merely reflect the likelihood that the more layers you peel away from Tony Blair the less you're going to find inside. On the other hand, Quaid doesn't quite nail Clinton's magnetic down-home charm, while Sheen slides effortlessly back and forth between Blair's puppyish gregariousness and his shining-eyed, visionary mode. Rather than playing the President as merely a philandering blarney-merchant, Quaid has equipped him with the kind of brutal pragmatism without which nobody could reach the summit of American politics.
This emerges to telling effect in the scenes depicting Blair's attempts to strong-arm the Americans into joining his moral crusade against the Serbian invasion of Kosovo ("This is a battle between good and evil!"), as Clinton calculates the balance between his personal inclinations, his gratitude to Blair for his support over the Monica Lewinsky scandal, US strategic considerations, and the response of American voters to an American troop deployment.
I've no idea whether Clinton ever did sit down with the doe-eyed Tony to map out a vision of a "progressive revolution" in British and American politics (if he did, Blair probably thought he was talking about prog-rock), and I couldn't believe that he would have told Blair point blank that he thought his claims to be a "progressive centre-left politician" had been a sham all along. Still, his barbed comment that Blair was increasingly beginning to resemble the evangelical fundamentalist Jerry Falwell felt like it contained a palpable grain of truth, even if it was Peter Morgan who said it rather than Clinton.
cherieThe supporting players are a treat too. Helen McCrory (pictured left) perfects her pithy portrayal of Cherie Blair, while Hope Davis (pictured above right) is brilliant as a steely Hillary Clinton, focusing on her own long-term political ambitions while trying to drag herself clear of the quagmire of her husband's sexual weaknesses.
Where the piece starts to gape at the seams is in trying to telescope a panorama of international events - the Northern Ireland peace process, the Lewinsky affair, Kosovo, crises within Europe and NATO - into a 90-minute drama, in which Blair is mysteriously quarantined from all Labour party affairs or British domestic politics. I was left wondering whether the film's beguiling but untrustworthy formula of satirical semi-caricature was really the way we want to remember key events in our recent history.
Apparently Michael Sheen doesn't take kindly to suggestions that his Blair impersonations might be cramping his style in the wider entertainment universe. Perhaps we can all agree that a hat-trick of Tonys is enough.
Is satirical semi-caricature really the way we want to remember key events in our recent history?

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