Ever since World War II the close relationship shared between the UK and USA governments has been referred to as ‘The Special Relationship’, sometimes sincerely and sometimes ironically. In this made-for-cable-television film by BBC Films and HBO Films, the term is used to describe the relationship between UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and USA President Bill Clinton, from Blair’s appointment as the leader of the Labour Party in 1994 to the end of Clinton’s presidency in 2001. Examining the shifting lines between the personal and the public, the political and the private, The Special Relationship almost functions as a strange sort of bromance between two men who heralded the arrival of a new approach to progressive centre-left politics. Over the course of the film the two men learn that political friendships are strategic and conditional.
Michael Sheen once more portrays Tony Blair as he has done twice previously in The Queen and The Deal, both of which were written by Peter Morgan who also wrote The Damned United and Frost/Nixon (both of which also starred Sheen). This is clearly a fruitful acting/writing partnership as once again Sheen’s performance is impeccable. In The Special Relationship he appears opposite Dennis Quaid, whose performance as Clinton is very good although sometimes he seems a bit overly focused on impersonating Clinton’s appearance and manner of speaking rather than giving a fully nuanced performance like Sheen does.
Helen McCrory, who played Cherie Blair in The Queen reprises her role in The Special Relationship and Hope Davis plays Hillary Clinton. Both actors deliver fine performances as women who have to juggle their own ambitions with those of their husbands’. Davis in particular brings a lot of dignity and strength to Hillary Clinton.
The primary point of interest in The Special Relationship is the changing status between Blair and Clinton throughout the film. Prior to his election, Blair is portrayed as a somewhat wide-eyed fan of Clinton, in awe of his success, appreciative of his advice and flattered that Clinton has taken such an interest in his career. Both men do seem to initially share a genuine friendship with each other and have a shared common goal of obliterating the right and far left elements out of contemporary politics. However, as both their terms progress their relationship does become one of small power plays and one-upmanship, further intensifying over Clinton’s sexual misconduct allegations (Blair describes all the sex talk as “blue”) and their differing attitudes over how to handle the worsening crisis in Kosovo.
The Special Relationship is a good dramatisation of the UK/USA relationships during some very formative years. However it does feel made for TV and it will probably be of more political and historical interest than an overall cinematically satisfying experience. Although it is perceptive to a point, in particular its representation of Blair’s attitudes towards military intervention, it actually doesn’t feel as insightful as the fictional representation of UK/USA relations depicted satirically in In The Loop. Nevertheless this is a fine film that if nothing else is as entertaining a way as any to be brought up to speed on some very important contemporary history.