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Tuesday, 28 September 2010

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - The Special Relationship

Directed by: Richard Loncraine
Produced by: Ann Wingate
Frank Doelger
Tracey Scoffield
Written by: Peter Morgan
Starring: Michael Sheen
Dennis Quaid
Hope Davis
Helen McCrory
Music by: Alexandre Desplat
Cinematography by: Barry Ackroyd
Editing by: Melanie Oliver
Studio: Rainmark Films
Release date(s): May 23, 2010 (HBO), September 18, 2010 (BBC)
Running time: 93 minutes
Country: United Kingdom/United States
Preceded by: The Queen
Allo, allo, everyone, finally I am reviewing The Special Relationship at long last (blame fresher’s week and laziness to be honest). It's just as well that I have a timetable for the year which means I can plan out EXACTLY whenever I can have the time to do my reviews, because I know that if I am getting sick of my delays and excuses that you are too.

To get all the hooey out of the way, we now move on to The Special Relationship. Now, I know that the film has not received theatrical release, but I do things a bit differently on my blog. As far as I'm concerned, whether released as a TV-movie, direct-to-DVD or theatrical release, it still counts a movie in my book. The Special Relationship is third film in what Peter Morgan calls his "informal Blair trilogy", being that it is his third script to be written with Tony Blair, played by Michael Sheen in each instalment, as a main or supporting character.

The film covers from 1992-2001, following "The Special Relationship" between Tony Blair, played by Michael Sheen and Bill Clinton, played by Dennis Quaid. Of course, the plots take into account all of the historical events that took place during this time, and through this, Morgan scribes a dramatic picture, which, if not entirely accurate, does work in a narrative sense.

Peter Morgan is a terrific scribe, having written in the past, not just the other two parts of the "Blair trilogy" The Deal and The Queen, but also The Last King Of Scotland, Frost/Nixon and The Damned United, all but one of which star Michael Sheen. So, you've got a screenwriter who is in familiar territory of translating fact into a strong dramatic picture, with a sublime degree of wit and entertaining dialogue, all contributing to fascinating and highly interesting character studies in the films he writes. Also, it is clear that he has done his research and knows his topic; therefore any inaccuracies which one might find (but should be able to ignore) can be bypassed in a thoroughly absorbing blend of fact and fiction. Structurally, whilst taking the basic three-act routine, Morgan is always able to avoid mundanity and the traditional problems found in this linear form of writing through the clear (but not demeaning) outline of the central plot and the relationship between Blair and Clinton. Of particular interest is the way in which the power balance of the relationship between the two leaders changes during the course of the film. Finally, Morgan is a writer who knows how to write for his actors, and really caters to their specific abilities, meaning that for the most part, we have highly interesting and distinct characters on display, particularly in the case of Sheen, and thus a very actor’s piece to be enjoyed. Morgan is a fine writer whose work I admire, and this is another great showing of his talents, and I am thoroughly anticipating his next screenplay Hereafter coming to screens in a film starring Matt Damon and directed by the ever magnificent Clint Eastwood.

For a film that is such an actor’s piece, it is only appropriate that we devote a period of discussion towards the acting. Now, as one could imagine, Michael Sheen is once again fantastic as Tony Blair. The chameleonic Sheen has no problem in switching shoe sizes between journalist and media personality David Frost and former Derby County, Leeds United and later Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough, and as such his grand return to the role of Tony Blair becomes a homecoming of sorts. However, given a great scope with which to portray Blair and the changes he goes through during the course of the film, Sheen shines, moving from the determined yet slightly tentative Blair we see at the start to the media playboy and powerful political figure that he becomes. Sheen plays this with all the subtlety in the book, opting for the more logical progression and transition as a character as opposed to a sudden change. This is what they call "acting" at its finest, proving Sheen once again to be one of the finest actors today and surely a force to be reckoned with in the acting world for the next 20-plus years. However, whilst I am as ever gushing over Sheen, special attention must be given to Dennis Quaid's great performance as Bill Clinton. Now, I don't dislike Dennis Quaid by any means, a better actor than he is often credited for, not helped by the fact that he has racked up some stinkers of late, The Day After Tomorrow in particular, alongside the disappointing but interesting oddity (in the loosest sense of the phrase) Pandorum coming to mind (by the way, Dennis, if you're out there, you're one of the best things about that film). His performance as Clinton in this film is tremendous, and he really does the job in portraying him really well. Having gained 35 pounds and getting his eyebrows trimmed, Quaid really did a good job of transforming himself physically for the role and once he dons the wig of the famous Clinton "silver fox" hair, he really looks the part fully. Also, he nails the Arkansas accent brilliantly, although not going too far to make it a pastiche and giving him more space as an actor to flex his muscles. Speaking of which, he does this also brilliantly. Although by all means he has the more showy performance over Sheen, it is the face behind the charm and the quick with that portrays a landscape of emotions, portraying Clinton as a man who has come to the realisation that he has become his own worst enemy and setting up for his own political downfall in the eyes of the people of America. Also of note certainly is the performance of Hope Davis as Hillary Clinton. She too nails the accent and does indeed transform herself for this performance. It is also particularly interesting Davis' portrayal of Hillary in the context of her relationship with husband Bill. At first, she is the voice in his ear, his special advisor as such. Politically she is involved, but she is still the subordinate figure of the two, but by the end of the film, we see her rise in power as her own person, acting politically outside of her life with Bill. Davis gives a great performance in this capacity, showing a progression in her character which sets up the context of her current political position very well.

I would also like to give credit to the solid and efficient direction from Richard Loncraine, who does a good job that is appropriate for the film and the cinematography of Barry Ackroyd, whose work as the cinematographer of The Hurt Locker would have won if it weren't, once again, for the Burmese VJ's of Burma VJ: Reporting From A Closed Country. Sorry, little plug there, but Ackroyd does a wonderful job on this film, proving himself further as an ace cinematographer.

We are unfortunately done with the good and about to get rolling with the bad but hopefully not the ugly (an obvious reference, I know, but I couldn't resist it).

I said "for the most part" Morgan writes a script in which the actors can flex their muscles. Unfortunately, his writing for Helen McCrory as Cheri Blair is at fault. Certainly, his decision to make Cheri and Hillary as the wives different is understandable, but I just felt that the role of Cheri was underdeveloped and made her come across as a clichéd and symbolic character of the loving wife, which in the context of the rest of the main actors in the piece, just doesn't work. Also, whilst McCrory certainly does her best with the performance and provides some good moments, it is kind of like the flawed writing for Ché, in that it heavily impacted the performance of Benicio del Toro and denied him from delivering what would have been a classic role to its fullest. The case is the same here, although to a far greater extent, and it comes across as a blotch in an otherwise fine actor’s film.

To be criticised, and deservedly to a massive extent, is the score for the film by Alexandre Desplat. Now, I have done my research and it turns out that the man has done work on such "esteemed" films such as The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button and The Twilight Saga: New Moon. Maybe I'm telling myself this in the context of this display of an audio equivalent to tinnitus, but the other two scores were rubbish. All that comes to mind with regards to the score in those films is "grand and sweeping" orchestral flourishes and in the case of New Moon the occasional guitar melody or female singing voice. Here in The Special Relationship, because it's a drama with lots of fast dialogue, we have the little minimalist bouncy type of music that is so intrusive and irritating and different bits throughout the film. Whenever one enters the room, there’s a sweep, a recognition of sorts, but all together a completely demeaning and patronising intrusion to the audience, kind of like the old crash (not as much a crash but a light crash) of the cymbals whenever a villain entered a scene, which is now absent in film due to countless parodies. And then you have the "feel" moments as I call them, most apparent in a scene in which Sheen/Blair and Quaid/Clinton are hosting a joint-press conference. Defending Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, we have the rising violins, slowly rising, following by additional string instruments, and of course, no grand "feel" scene is complete without a brass section coming in there somewhere. No audience should be subjected to this rubbish, and for someone such as myself who if I may be frank if not necessarily agreeing with popular tastes in music, listens to a lot of music, it is very insulting to have to listen to a score such as this.

On the topic of music, I bought (yes, bought!) Killing Joke's new album Absolute Dissent yesterday and honestly, it is the best thing I have heard all year and already I think it might well be one of the greatest albums ever, so please check it out. No Joke (no pun intended!).

So to finish on the films negatives, it is unfortunately, like many TV-films, restricted by its format and could have done with perhaps more running time, in which case we might have got a film like Frost/Nixon. It is obvious to me that cuts were made to this film (and its script) in order to meet its running time, and whilst I advocate a lean film which should shorter rather than longer, in this case, it’s the exception to the unwritten rule (that's why they can be broken) and needs more time under its belt I think.

Despite these problems, it is an expertly handled film, if not a great one, with a mostly solid script by Peter Morgan, terrific performances from Michael Sheen (another nod for you methinks come year-end awards), Dennis Quaid and Hope Davis, strong cinematography from Barry Ackroyd and efficient direction from Richard Loncraine.

The Thin White Dude’s Prognosis – 7.8/10

The Thin White Dude’s Self-Diagnosis – Rockin’ (to The Sex PistolsGod Save The Queen)

P.S. Anyone notice my new editing style? Hope you appreciate it. It’s designed to be more readable. Hopefully the blog will improve sooner or later, now that I seem to be into digestible presentation. (Oh no, Lou Reed’s The Kids came onto the shuffle! Kill me! As depressing as the song is, it’s horribly infectious!) Stephen King’s On Writing, Wikipedia and Danland91’s fantastic blog, which has got me to step up my game presentation wise, has to take some degree of credit for this new gig. I will of course maintain my usual good wit and critical eye. Toodles!

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