Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair doesn’t star as himself in the fascinating new HBO movie “The Special Relationship,” but viewers — American viewers, at least — might be forgiven for thinking he does.
Michael Sheen plays Blair for the third time in screenwriter Peter Morgan’s Blair trilogy, which began with “The Deal,” made for British TV and seen on HBO, and continued on the big screen with the Oscar-nominated “The Queen.”
That movie examined Blair’s dealings with Queen Elizabeth II, played royally by Helen Mirren, who took home the Academy Award for the role. In “The Special Relationship,” Blair is again a bit overshadowed by a larger-than-life figure, in this case President Bill Clinton.
Sheen built his Blair monopoly on a strong resemblance to the British politician, who led the Labour Party into power and served as prime minister from 1997 to 2007.
To play Clinton, producers turned to someone who didn’t much resemble the former president, at least not superficially. But after packing on 35 pounds, supposedly by eating at McDonald’s a lot, and having his hair shorn and grayed, Quaid becomes an entirely believable Bill.
The “special relationship” of the movie’s title doesn’t refer specifically to Blair and Clinton but to the traditionally close ties and mutual support between the United States and Great Britain. But when the comic Cole Porter song “Friendship” plays over the opening titles, featuring photos of U.S. presidents with British prime ministers, we know this won’t be a stodgy historical reflection.
Instead, we meet a young, deer-in-the-headlights Tony Blair in 1992, so much a nobody that the driver who picks him up at the airport in Washington won’t even help him put his bag in the trunk. He’s in town to get advice on how to return the Labour Party to power. Four years later, he’s back, this time embraced by Clinton as the future prime minister.
The scene in which Blair visits the Clinton White House is delicious, and Sheen looks like a little boy about to see Santa as he approaches the Oval Office. It’s easy to see him being swept away by Clinton’s powerful charisma.
Quaid has perfected Clinton’s voice, smile and body language. Hope Davis, as the future secretary of state, doesn’t look much like Hillary, but her performance is nuanced and touching, especially when her marriage is shattered by the thunderbolt of her husband’s affair.
Helen McCrory, who played Cherie (“Che-REE”) Blair in “The Queen,” returns believably to that role.
“The Special Relationship” is most enjoyable when it contrasts the lives and style of the Clintons and the Blairs. As Tony heads off to Washington to meet with Clinton, Cherie is hanging up wet laundry, and his good shirt needs laundering. She marvels to learn the size of Hillary’s staff and of her powerful position in the administration.
The Clintons, especially Bill, are dubious about the Blairs.
“You know, she’s from Liverpool,” Bill tells Hillary while eating tortilla chips. “It’s the Arkansas of England.”
The Clinton-Blair relationship and the movie itself begin to fall apart when the Monica Lewinsky scandal breaks. Blair, who had stood by Clinton during his early denials, finds the resulting jokes “excruciatingly embarrassing.”
Blair asks Cherie: If he did something like that, “Would you leave me?”
“No,” she tells him, “but I’d make your life hell.”
In addition to excellent casting (that’s not the real Madeleine Albright, but it could be), “The Special Relationship” uses news footage of rioting in Northern Ireland and horrors in Kosovo. The story carries through to 2000, when the Clintons visit the Blairs while the Bush-Gore election remains unsettled.
In the end, both politicians are disappointed in each other. One comes off much better than the other, but which that is may depend on your point of view.