Genius Products // 1984 // 2003 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ben Saylor (Retired) // July 31st, 2008
Gordon Brown: You're going every bit as far on this journey as me. I'll make
sure of that.
Tony Blair: Only one of us can go all the way.
Gordon Brown: And which one is that?
Tony Blair: The one that has "Labour leader" written all over him.
Among the better films to be released in 2006 was The Queen, a fictional look at the aftermath of Princess Diana's death and its effect on the Royal Family as well as then-new Prime Minister Tony Blair. The film, directed by Stephen Frears, garnered many accolades and awards, including a Best Actress Oscar for Helen Mirren for her portrayal of Elizabeth II and a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nod for Peter Morgan.
Three years prior to the release of The Queen, several members of that film's creative team, including Frears, Morgan, actor Michael Sheen (who played Blair), and producer Christine Langan made The Deal, a film that was broadcast on Britain's Channel 4. While The Queen focuses more on the Royal Family, The Deal is concerned with the rise of Labour politicians Blair and Gordon Brown (David Morrissey), his friend and rival. Heretofore unavailable on DVD (at least here in the States), the Miriam Collection has made The Deal its sixth title.
In 1983, among the new members elected to Parliament are the cheerful, ambitious Tony Blair (Michael Sheen, Underworld) and the intelligent, reserved Scotsman Gordon Brown (David Morrissey, The Reaping). The two opposite personalities end up sharing an office and becoming friends, each united in the goal to modernize Britain's Labour party.
But with the sudden death of beloved Labour party leader John Smith (Frank Kelly, Father Ted), there is a vacuum in the leadership of the party. Both Blair and Brown want to stand for leadership, but when support within the party begins to tend toward the charming, popular Blair, the two politicians meet at the now-defunct Granita restaurant in Islington to strike a deal that will shape the course of British politics for the next decade -- and beyond.
I am a great admirer of The Queen, and I feel about as strongly regarding The Deal. Both are smartly written and strongly acted films that don't rely on showy set pieces or moments of melodrama (or at least not many of them) to get their points across. And while The Deal doesn't attempt to get into its characters' heads as much as The Queen does with its title character, it is nonetheless a taut, incisive drama.
The versatile Frears, who has worked in genres ranging from the period piece (Dangerous Liasons) to the romantic comedy (High Fidelity), is more than up to the task at hand with The Deal. The director and Alwin H. Kuchler, his cinematographer, work hard to make a nice-looking movie on a budget of $3 million (the figure provided in the disc's commentary). Frears is eclectic in his camera placement and framing, but not in a way that's distracting; he knows when to get in close and when to stay further away, and when to do a longer take as opposed to a shorter one. The film's lighting generally has a natural quality to it that helps give the proceedings a docudrama feel. In addition, as was done in The Queen, news footage is excellently incorporated into The Deal to further bolster the production's docudrama quality, as well as provide needed historical context. And in his handling of his actors, Frears shows his typically deft hand, making sure that all of his actors give suitably reigned in, realistic performances.
While The Queen was dominated by Helen Mirren's performance, two top-drawer turns vie for attention in The Deal: those of Michael Sheen and David Morrissey. When I first saw The Queen, I was very impressed with Sheen's performance as Blair and disappointed when he failed to receive an Oscar nomination. He's just as good in The Deal, even if his character is written with apparent bias (more on that later). In The Deal, Sheen makes Blair a friendly but also undeniably shrewd and opportunistic personality who won't allow his friendship with Brown to interfere with his own political aspirations. The consummate politician, Blair seems always to put on a positive, welcoming front, but at the same time knows how and when to make a forceful stand, as when he argues for being tougher on crime in the wake of the James Bulger murder in 1993.
These traits put Sheen's Blair in sharp contrast to Morrissey's Brown, a fiery and passionate MP who does not mince words when speaking his mind on issues facing his country. Unfortunately, he is also, in the words of characters from the film, "moody" and "difficult," and is not nearly as good at making friends in political circles as the charismatic Blair. We see Brown's temper flare in several scenes, and the sonorous Scottish accent Morrissey effects for the role thunders effectively during these moments.
I have to confess that I'm not the most informed person when it comes to British politics, but from what I see in The Deal, those who support Blair (a number that's dwindled considerably over the last few years) may object to the film's portrayal of the former P.M. In the film, Blair is certainly likable, but he's also given a rather ruthless, conniving streak, as when he unsuccessfully attempts to persuade Brown to stand against Smith for party leadership in 1992. The way he goes about drumming up support for his own run for leadership in 1994, as it is depicted in the film, is not quite sinister, but it's not entirely honorable, either. By the end of the film, I came away with the impression that Brown was a noble man trying to do the right thing and was undone by a combination of personality flaws and having the misfortune to be in competition with the savvier, sneakier Blair. Adding to the film's bias is its textual postscript, which notes that Blair did not relinquish power after two terms of office, which the film implies was Brown's understanding coming away from the fabled Granita meeting. In the commentary track, Morgan admits that were he to have written The Deal today, he would have been more "even-handed" in his approach to the subject matter.
Bias notwithstanding, The Deal remains an engaging drama for those interested in the inner workings of politics. Morgan's script manages to be both witty and serious and also possesses an appropriately insiderish (despite that some scenes are, necessarily, invented) feel. It's not always easy to follow, particularly for someone unfamiliar with British politics, but it's always interesting to watch. Looking at The Deal and The Queen, it's readily apparent that Morgan has a gift for this kind of writing, which means I'm eagerly anticipating Morgan's third installment of his "Blair trilogy," a work focusing on the relationship between the prime minister and President Clinton presently titled The Special Relationship.
The Miriam Collection's DVD of The Deal is fine in the video and audio department; the quality of both isn't perfect (the image during some night scenes isn't the best-looking), but overall there isn't much to complain about. Extras include a feature commentary with Morgan and producer Christine Langan. While there are some gaps in the discussion, the pair is nonetheless entertaining and quite interesting to listen to as they talk about everything in the production from casting to shooting to their own opinion on the state of Britain today. Next up is a conversation with Frears, who helps give some valuable historical context to the project; this is one that some may want to view before watching the feature itself. In addition, there are text-only biographies of Blair and Brown, as well as trailers for other Miriam Collection titles.
The only problem I have with The Deal is one that I have with only a relatively small amount of movies: It's too short. At 78 minutes (sans credits), considering that the film covers more than 10 years, I wish there had been a little more material included, especially more scenes depicting Blair and Brown's relationship. We get a couple nice scenes of the two as friends (an amusing moment when Blair is coaching Brown on the proper way to say "comrades" springs to mind), but I wanted more of that relationship, so that when they begin to move apart, there's more heft to it. Still, the movie as it is is well paced and pretty easy to follow, even for a relative novice to British politics like myself.
Like its successor The Queen, The Deal is an excellent film for three main reasons: Stephen Frears' skilled direction, strong performances by the cast, and a sharp, knowing script from Peter Morgan. And with The Miriam Collection DVD release of the film, the Weinstein Company has again shown a knack for choosing interesting, unconventional titles.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 2003 Minutes
Release Year: 1984
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Feature commentary with screenwriter Peter Morgan and producer Christine Langan
* Interview with director Stephen Frears
* Text-only biographies of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown