Film review – The Special Relationship (2010)

5 August 2010
The Special Relationship: Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) and Bill Clinton (Dennis Quaid)

Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) and Bill Clinton (Dennis Quaid)

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.

The Special Relationship: Cherie Blair (Helen McCrory) and Hillary Clinton (Hope Davis)

Cherie Blair (Helen McCrory) and Hillary Clinton (Hope Davis)

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.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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MIFF 2010 Diary: Pre Festival – Part 3

22 July 2010

Notes on some of the MIFF films getting a general release

Winter's Bone

Winter's Bone

I used to recommend that people don’t go to films in the festival that already have an Australian distributor attached to them (and are therefore likely to get released) because that was a waste of a ticket but I don’t abide by that anymore. For a start, seeing a film at the festival is so much more enjoyable than going to a regular session at the local cinema. There’s more a sense of occasion plus festival audiences seem to be less inclined to talk, play with their phones and eat three course meals throughout the film. Also, because not all the films always end up getting cinematic releases – especially the ones that have no confirmed release date yet. As Cerise Howard notes on her list of films with Australian distributors, many of them may be destined to go straight to DVD.

Two of the films in the festival that I’ve seen that are getting released soon are The Special Relationship and Despicable Me. The Special Relationship is a dramatisation of the dynamic between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton while Despicable Me is a 3D computer animation about a super villain, sort of in the vein of The Incredibles. Both are films worth seeing but not ones I’d personally give priority to at the festival.

Of more interest is Debra Granik’s new film Winter’s Bone about a teenage girl trying to track down her methamphetamine-making father in the ultra poor Missouri mountains community that she has the misfortunate of living in. I’m still not sure how I feel about this film because I found it such a depressing experience, although it also functions as a strong and tense mystery. There is a lot to admire about Winter’s Bone but I’m not so sure if I enjoyed it – although I guess that is sort of the point.

The other mystery of sorts that I’ve seen is Roman Polanski’s new film, the very atmospheric The Ghost Writer. While not in the same league as classics such as Repulsion and Chinatown, The Ghost Writer is one of Polanski’s better straightforward genre films.



I remember seeing New Zealand director Taika Waititi’s acclaimed short film Two Cars, One Night at a MIFF opening night years ago and absolutely loved it (it was certainly far superior to Somersault, which was meant to be the main attraction). While I wasn’t a big fan of Waititi’s first feature film Eagle vs Shark, his new film Boy is absolutely wonderful. It is so genuine and funny that it is little wonder it has taken the New Zealand box office by storm. Highly recommended.

The two MIFF films that I have seen that I am most excited about are the Cronenbergian Splice and Michael Winterbottom’s new film The Killer Inside Me, a neo noir with shades of Kiss Me Deadly and No County For Old Men. I suspect many others will not share my enthusiasm for both films to the same extent and these are certainly not films for everybody. While the visceral horror of Splice is more transgressively fun than anything seriously confronting, the violence in The Killer Inside Me is some of the most shocking violence I’ve seen in cinema for a very long time. However, I loved them both and will probably include them on my top ten films of 2010 list at the end of the year.


© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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