Such is the extent to which Michael Sheen has become identified with the man he has portrayed three times that even when he played Aro, the chief vampire in Twilight: New Moon, a little bit of Blair shone through.
The Special Relationship is the third in an informal trilogy of Blair films: The Deal explored his rise to prominence and early conflicts with Brown; The Queen revolved round his role in saving the Royal Family after the death of Diana. The personal and professional relationship between Blair and Clinton is the focus of this final installment before Sheen moves on to other projects.
The first major event of the Blair-Clinton years, the Northern Ireland peace negotiations, is dealt with rather sloppily. The most important lasting achievement of either the Blair or Clinton administration is squeezed into barely five minutes. The skill and commitment of both leaders is overlooked, and director Richard Loncraine makes it seem that a few brief words from Clinton was all that it took to get Sinn Fein to the negotiating table.
Similarly, the amount of time dedicated to the all the lurid details of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, while entertaining (there is a brilliant part when Clinton’s lawyer struggles to explain the legal implications of a semen-stained pair of trousers – Hillary’s reaction is priceless) did not really have all the much of an impact on the relationship between the two men, with Blair standing behind Clinton and refusing to distance himself from the beleaguered President.
Blair does finally get tough on Clinton when the USA is dragging its feet on the question of deploying NATO troops to Kosovo-and the argument between the two administrations over how to engage Milosevic is rightly explored in detail.
As we know from the recent souring of US-UK relations over the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the release of Al Megrahi, the “Special Relationship” is not always that special, and there is often considerable but hidden conflict between the two countries. Loncraine takes us behind the scenes to show us how Blair took the lead, attempting to force Clinton into using ground troops against Milosevich rather than high-level bombing, which would safeguard US lives (and thus Clinton’s poll ratings) but endanger innocent people. Downing Street ultimately briefed against the White House in order to get Clinton to act.
As with The Queen, the women steal the show. Helen McCrory reprises her role as a wonderfully bitchy and acerbic Cherie Blair (“That ‘visionary’ you speak of is also the first President of America up on a sexual harassment charge, Tony”) while Hope Davis as Hillary Clinton is almost perfect as the steely, determined power behind her husband’s throne. Sheen’s suitability for his role was a forgone conclusion, and Quaid makes a surprisingly convincing Clinton: incredibly intelligent but also a politician in every sense of the word.
The decision to ignore Iraq (Loncraine originally decided to include both Clinton and Bush) will be a controversial one because far more than Northern Ireland or Kosovo, it tested where Blair’s true loyalties lay. The last scene-with Blair talking to Bush on the phone as he watches Clinton leave Chequers – perhaps hints that another installment is to come, but in the meantime we must be content with what is an insightful and thoughtful exploration of these two figures – even if it doesn’t quite reach the high standards set by either The Deal or The Queen.