Before we begin this review of Richard Loncraine’s The Special Relationship- a fictionalised chronicle of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton’s friendship – let’s get that dreaded phrase “bromance” out of the way. Sure, we all had fun bandying the term around when Judd Apatow started delivering his boys’ own adventures back in the mid-naughties. But after five years of lame Dane Cook comedies, the idiom inspires dread rather than delight. It is film-reviewer shorthand that – much like the terms “mumblecore” and “Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr.” – no longer really means anything. The Special Relationship does indeed focus on a friendship between two (admittedly powerful) dudes, but this is more than a mere episode of Entourage. For one thing, stuff happens.
The film begins with a pre-PM Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) heading to Washington to pick up some election tricks from the newly elected President Bill Clinton (Dennis Quaid). They work a treat, and the next time he arrives in the capital of the United States, it’s as the intensely popular leader of the United Kingdom. Clinton and Blair are handsome, relatively young, and full of big ideas. They get along like a house on fire, and agree to reignite the famous “special relationship” long shared by their two nations. Blair is grateful to have Clinton reciprocate the friendship, not unlike the kid at school glad to no longer be picked last for the soccer team. But as revelations emerge regarding Clinton’s affair with a young intern named Monica Lewinsky, Blair learns that friendship with the POTUS might be a poisoned chalice.
Screenwriter Peter Morgan has re-teamed with his muse Michael Sheen in the third instalment of their Blair trilogy. What they began with 2003’s The Deal and 2006’s The Queen, they continue here in The Special Relationship. Seeing Sheen bring the British PM to life on screen has been one of the great theatrical joys of recent years, and he doesn’t disappoint in his third outing. His is not the only classy performance. Hope Davis damn near steals the whole show as Hillary Clinton (although, what was the last film Davis didn’t steal). Helen McCrory, reprising the role of Cherie Blair from The Queen, makes a famously icy public figure seem both strong and lovable (Morgan’s modus operandi). As for Quaid, well, I’ve seen better Clinton’s on Saturday Night Live. His is a fine impersonation, but it fares poorly against Sheen and Davis’ embodiments of their subjects.
Loncraine’s film – made for TV in America and released theatrically here in Australia – isn’t quite the fully realised achievement that Stephen Frears‘ The Queen was. Whereas The Queen gave us an insight into the life of a misunderstood monarch, The Special Relationship acts best as a simple chronicle of a friendship between two men. The former was profound and powerful; the latter skips through time, glosses over the most interesting aspects of the period and wraps up too quickly. But The Special Relationship remains a fascinating document of a friendship between a couple of fellows who strictly adhered to the “bros before hos” code. In one famous instance, too much so.