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The Tony Blair Trilogy Part I: The Deal

May 24th, 2013
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The Queen, the 2006 film starring Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II, received a lot of acclaim upon its release, making a big splash at the box office and being nominated for several Academy Awards, among other honors.  I very much enjoyed The Queen when I saw it in theatres in 2006, and so I was intrigued to learn recently that the film was in fact the middle of a trilogy of films, all written by Peter Morgan, that depicted the political career of Tony Blair.  First there was 2003’s The Deal, a film made for British television, written by Mr. Morgan and directed by Stephen Frears.  Then came The Queen, which was also written by Mr. Morgan and directed by Stephen Frears.  Then there came The Special Relationship, which aired on HBO and was written by Mr. Morgan though this time directed by Richard Loncraine, rather than Mr. Frears.  (I have read that Mr. Morgan had intended to direct the film himself, though in the end that didn’t happen.)  In all three films, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was played by Michael Sheen.

I had never seen The Deal nor The Special Relationship, so I decided to first track down The Deal, and then continue to watch the other two films in this informal trilogy.

The Deal tracks the political careers of two rising stars in Britain’s Labour party (the long out-of-power liberal opponents to Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative governments in the eighties), Gordon Brown (played by David Morrissey) and Tony Blair (played by Michael Sheen).  In the nineties, after toiling in obscurity for years, the two men and their Labour party find themselves with a chance for a political victory.  And while Gordon Brown had long been presumed the leader-to-be among the Labour party, suddenly Tony Blair was becoming a figure of rising popularity.  Thus the two former allies found themselves at loggerheads as to who would step forward to lead the party and attempt to become the Prime Minister.  The title of “The Deal” refers to an agreement that the two men apparently struck in 1994 in which Mr. Brown would step aside so that Mr. Blair could run in — and eventually win — Parliamentary elections and assume the role of Prime Minister.  Though the film begins in the moments before that fateful 1994 meeting, we then shift back to Mr. Blair’s first meeting with Mr. Brown back in 1983, and we then follow the two men’s political careers over the course of the next decade.

The Deal was made for British audiences, rather than Americans, and at times it assumes a familiarity with British politics that I must admit I do not possess.  However, the film is compelling enough to sweep me along, as a viewer, and I didn’t get too flummoxed by references to certain people or events that I was not altogether familiar with.  The film has an interesting structure, in which many of the scenes are bracketed with clips of news-reports from the time (most of which I think were genuine, though some might have been created for the film).  These news reports help set the stage and context for the scenes — we see news of certain political happenings, and then see scenes with Mr. Blair, Mr. Brown, and the film’s other characters discussing and reaction to those events.  Because I am not so well versed in the intricacies of British politics in the eighties, some of those news reports were confusing to me (the opposite of their intended effect), but again, this wasn’t a huge bother and I didn’t have too much trouble following the events as the film unfolded.

Both Mr. Morrissey and Mr. Sheen are terrific in the two main roles.  The two men are opposites.  Mr. Morrisey, as Gordon Brown, is a big fellow, filled with passion for his cause though also at times gruff and very inward-looking.  Mr. Sheen is a much more slight figure, a skinny fellow who is a gentler sort, a little more soft-spoken and politically savvy than the more bulldoggish Mr. Brown.  I can’t speak to how accurate Mr. Morrisey and Mr. Sheen’s portrayals of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair are, but in the context of the film the two are a compelling match, and it’s interesting to watch the characteristics that made the two men, at first, a wonderful match for each other, eventually pull them apart.

The Deal is a very talky film.  In many ways it feels like a play.  Most of the scenes in the movie are men in small rooms talking about politics.  But Mr. Frears’ direction, combined with a very skilled ensemble of British actors, keeps the film moving.  The scenes never get to dull — Mr. Frears and his team keeps everything pretty light on its feet, and there is a nice amount of humor in the mix.  Peter Morgan’s script (based on the book The Rivals, by James Naughtie) is sharp, giving us everything we need to know about both the character of these two men and the political context of the scenes as the film jumps through the decade between 1983 and 1994 without getting bogged down in a lot of boring exposition.  The filmmakers trust the audience to keep up.

Knowing that the film was made in 2002/2003, I was a little surprised by the text captions at the end, that referred to Gordon Brown’s eventual rise to the Prime Ministership in 2007.  Apparently those end text-pieces were tweaked when the film was shown in the US, on HBO, after the success of The Queen.  Interesting.

I found The Deal to be a very enjoyable, interesting look into British politics in the eighties and early nineties.  The film has a low-budget feel to it, but it’s endearing.  This isn’t the polished big-screen effort that The Queen was (or at least, as I recall it to be — I am very interested to go and re-watch it now, having just seen The Deal), but it doesn’t need to be.  The Deal is a different type of animal.  I quite enjoyed it.

I will be back soon with my look back at part two of this “Tony Blair trilogy” — 2006’s The Queen.

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