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TV Review: Michael Sheen, Dennis Quaid Shine in HBO’s ‘The Special Relationship’

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CHICAGO – Writer Peter Morgan and actor Michael Sheen have collaborated once again to tell another chapter of the political life of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In “The Special Relationship,” the award-winning writer focuses on the dynamic between the leader and another of the most notable figures of the last century, President Bill Clinton (Dennis Quaid). Great performances elevate what is a relatively minor piece when compared to “The Queen”.

HollywoodChicago.com Television Rating: 3.5/5.0
Television Rating: 3.5/5.0

“The Special Relationship” starts in 1992, as Bill Clinton was rising to power and Blair was not yet Prime Minister. The film quickly moves forward to 1996, when Blair was elected after support from his U.S. counterpart. The title of Morgan’s film refers to a political phrase about relationships between leaders of friendly countries. For example, the U.S. has a “special relationship” with Israel. However, Morgan’s film, directed by Richard Loncraine, goes much deeper in its somewhat episodic examination of key moments in Clinton and Blair’s time in power by suggesting that their personal ties impacted international politics.

The Special Relationship
The Special Relationship
Photo credit: Skip Bolen/HBO

If Morgan’s script is to be believed, Blair and Clinton were a match made in heaven that fell apart only after Bill’s political currency tumbled. Early in the film, they have a conversation about the potential of a political paradigm shift around the world and it’s clear that they’re exactly on the same page. They see a move to left around the world, openly discussing how Al Gore will be President after Bill and how a new international era has begun.

The Special Relationship
The Special Relationship
Photo credit: Skip Bolen/HBO

Of course, a lot of Clinton’s power fell through the floor when an intern named Monica Lewinski entered the public eye. “The Special Relationship” focuses on Monica-gate much more than you might expect, nearly suggesting that it was not only what sunk Clinton but the advancement of the liberal party around the world. While Blair stuck by Clinton’s side, even as he was lying to the world, the tarnish on the President’s legacy started to rub off on the Prime Minister.

“The Special Relationship” is more of a personal film than a political one. There are nearly as many conversations between Bill and Hillary (Hope Davis) about what did or did not happen with Monica than war room moments with Blair and his staff. At the same time, we see Blair and his wife Cherie (Helen McCrory) dissecting each revelation. It’s an interesting screenwriting move that suggests that Cherie Blair and Hillary Clinton had special relationships with their husbands that were just as important as their political ones and arguably more so.

The performances in “The Special Relationship” are uniformly excellent, highlighted by future Emmy nominees Quaid and Davis, both absolutely perfect as the Clintons. Quaid gives his best performance in years, nailing both Clinton’s amazing confidence and the sorrow at his own realization that he had made a crucial mistake. And Davis wisely refuses to do a Hillary impersonation and yet still comes off completely believable. Sheen is typically good but Quaid and Davis steal the piece.

The Special Relationship
The Special Relationship
Photo credit: Skip Bolen/HBO

With all of this praise for an interesting script and great performances, why don’t I love “The Special Relationship”? It feels somewhat incomplete and arguably inconsequential. It’s an “interesting” movie that never crosses over into being a “riveting” one. It’s also oddly short in that covering this much historical material over years of two of the twentieth century’s most important leaders would seem to merit more than 90 minutes.

The episodic structure also makes for a film that moves in fits and starts. One minute, Hillary is talking about the right-wing conspiracy and in the next Tony Blair is in Kosovo trying to decide how to respond to the genocide. Once again, it’s always interesting but it’s a LOT of history for one film and too often feels surface level.

Ultimately, political junkies and those who loved “The Queen” and “The Deal” (the HBO movie in which Morgan and Sheen first tackled Blair) should absolutely take a look at “The Special Relationship” and will find a lot to like about it. Even if it’s not quite as “special” as one hopes it would be.

“The Special Relationship” premieres on HBO on Saturday, May 29th, 2010 at 8pm CST. It stars Michael Sheen, Dennis Quaid, and Hope Davis. It was written by Peter Morgan and directed by Richard Loncraine.

HollywoodChicago.com content director Brian Tallerico

Content Director

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