|Michael Sheen as Tony Blair in "The Deal" tonight on HBO. (CHRIS TERRY)|
It seems culturally dissonant to apply the term "frenemies" to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The word derives from American pop culture, and has decidedly Valley Girl overtones. You generally find the classic frenemies on MTV reality shows and CW melodramas, female best friends who dabble in backstabbing. Blair and Brown, of course, are powerful British politicians, the former and current prime ministers, respectively.
But frenemies is the best way to describe the men as portrayed in "The Deal," which airs on HBO tonight at 9. The dry movie goes back to the start of the pair's relationship, as rising MPs sharing a tiny, windowless office in the House of Commons in 1983. And then it travels forward through their unlikely bonding, their shared political goals regarding the Labour Party, and their ultimate fracture, as Blair wriggles out of their early agreement that Brown will be the candidate for "the big job," as Brown calls it. In "The Deal," whose title refers to their 1994 pact that Brown would let Blair run for office first after all, the two men are classic frenemies, without the furtive texting and wardrobe dissing that connotes.
This movie was filmed in 2003, and created by writer Peter Morgan and director Stephen Frears, the team that later brought us "The Queen" in 2006. It's a prequel to "The Queen," in some ways, as it sets the stage for Blair's response to the 1997 death of "people's princess" Diana, and it features the same actor - Michael Sheen - as Blair. (Morgan has already agreed to write a third film - on Blair's relationships with Bill Clinton and George W. Bush - to form a trilogy.) Both films take us behind the televised press conferences, to get at the more psychological realities behind public imagery, and yet they refuse to market in caricature. They are admirably substantive and grounded.
But "The Deal" is a less enthralling piece of work than "The Queen." Obviously, it lacks the dramatic charge brought on by Diana's death and Helen Mirren's faceted, Oscar-winning performance as Queen Elizabeth. But it also lacks a really compelling psychological theme of its own that could take the story beyond its political significance. The made-for-TV movie is tightly written and effectively acted, and yet it still plays more like a docudramatic re-creation than a Shakespearean glimpse at brotherly tension, at the way men deal with the need to be cooperative and yet ambitious. The movie, overstuffed with news footage, doesn't resound for those viewers - particularly American viewers - who haven't paid close attention to British politics of the past three decades.
The performances give "The Deal" a much-needed shot in the arm, particularly David Morrissey as Brown. Morrissey has stood out in a number of British miniseries that have made it to America, notably "Blackpool" (unsuccessfully remade here as "Viva Laughlin"), "Meadowlands," and "State of Play," and he is equally memorable here. He brings depth to Brown, a Scot, as a moody, private workaholic whose passion is in ideas and not in performing for the public. And he evokes Brown's rough physical mien without impersonating him. He reveals an integrity and humanity that Sheen's Blair doesn't have time for, qualities that are particularly noticeable when, unlike Blair, Brown resists exploiting the 1994 death of party leader John Smith for his own purposes.
Sheen's Blair is less intellectually formidable than Brown, and yet he is clearly the one with more mass appeal. In "The Deal," Blair becomes increasingly slippery as he becomes unsatisfied playing the man behind the man, especially when the man - Brown - has so little charisma. One excellent scene finds Blair telling Brown about the American use of the verb "to share," as in to talk about oneself. It's an ironic moment; amid his growing contempt for Brown's personality shortcomings, the talkative Blair is less and less willing to share the limelight.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.