There's a Shakespearean air to The Deal, a dramatic account of the relationship (both personal and political) between British MPs Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The Bard made great hay from the human quality of ambition, especially in the area of political leadership. It's that very subject that captured the interest of screenwriter Peter Morgan and director Stephen Frears in this initial salvo in a planned trilogy of films on modern British politics (the second film was Oscar favorite The Queen).
Produced for Britain's Channel 4 in 2003 (and later seen in America on HBO and now on DVD from Weinstein's The Miriam Collection), The Deal has a theatrical air in every good sense. Morgan, who also wrote Frost/Nixon, has a knack for researching the public record and spinning plausible imagined conversations to fill in the dramatic gaps. (According to Frears, Tony Blair, when asked on television of his behavior with the Queen, referred to The Queen: "'Well, I don’t know, look at the film, they got it right.'") In a nice bit of ass-covering, Morgan and Frears open the film with a touch of William Goldman, the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid quotation "Much of what follows is true."
The Deal takes the same approach as The Queen later would, including the casting of Michael Sheen as a savvy and easily underestimated Blair. In his finest screen work to date, David Morrissey makes an equally convincing Brown, projecting political seriousness and strength. The film opens on May 31, 1994, with the two men ruefully agreeing to meet with the intention of hammering out a "backroom" deal for Brown to take a back seat while Blair would ascend to the top of the Labor Party. Quickly flashing forward to twelve years earlier, the film immediately sets a brisk pace, as Morgan offers an efficient narrative version of the men's friendship, forged in the transitional period for Labor that saw leader Michael Foot give way to Neil Kinnock, followed by John Smith (played by Frank Kelly of Father Ted).
Though shot on a humble telefilm budget, The Deal is quite brilliantly staged by Frears, who positions his actors and camera to convey not only physical geography but mental geography. One brief scene takes in Blair's image and public comments on a TV studio's monitor, then pans to catch Blair in the "real world," as he worries his way off the set in a dark mood. The story is simple and simply dramatic, easily conveying how Parliamentary roommates became friends by "sharing" ("That's what the Americans call it," says Blair) and then growing apart through their shared and conflicting dream of becoming Prime Minister. Morgan gives the men foreshadowed comments that are neat without being overbearing, like Blair's seemingly casual comment, early on, "Only one of us can go all the way" and an exchange about Brown's reluctance to run against Smith:
Blair: I don't think this is the time for sentimentality.
Brown: I prefer to think of it as friendship.
As with The Queen, the filmmakers seek a kind of neutrality. Though Blair inevitably comes off badly in his opportunism (what Brown characterizes as "a stunning coup"), he doesn't sound wrong when he argues that he's more electable and represents the right choice for a party sick of being the opposition. By the time the film returns to the legendary Granita dinner, the sad toll of political maneuvering is palpable, and the knowledge of Blair's political future gives the dinner's empty promises added tragic weight. All in all, The Deal is a bold and convincing effort to dramatize contemporary political history.
Genius Products presents The Deal as part of Weinstein's Miriam Collection on DVD (spine number 6 for you completists). The audio-visual presentation is quite satisfactory, with a clean, clear anamorphic widescreen transfer and the film's original stereo soundtrack. Genius also includes a nice collection of extras, beginning with a commentary by writer Peter Morgan and producer Christine Langan. It's a friendly and informative look at the film in conception and production, with some entertaining anecdotes from across the pond, like the reputed neuroses of Blair and Brown about the appearance of their height and weight (respectively).
Also included is the wonderful featurette "A Conversation with Stephen Frears" (21:57). The always delightful, lightly cantankerous director submits himself to a series of questions about British politics (largely for the benefit of us clueless Americans), revealing in the process something of his own political perspective. Frears also addresses the critical and public reaction to the film, something of the challenges in making it, and the "intelligent guesswork" the film represents. Useful text-based Biographies of Blair and Brown round out the disc, as well as trailers for other Miriam Collection releases: El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire, Cinema Paradiso, Control, and I'm Not There. Here's a disc that most definitely deserves a spot on your shelf next to The Queen.
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