Dir. Richard Loncraine
(2010, Not Rated, 92 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

Peter Morgan’s screenplay is the highlight of The Special Relationship, a superior docudrama that takes loosely connected and potentially dry subject matter and turns it into terrific political theater. Though it is ostensibly about the relationship between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and American President Bill Clinton — and by extension British and American leaders through the ages — it seems more interested in Blair, who is the fuller, better defined character. He’s played by Michael Sheen, who has spent a good portion of his career portraying this Prime Minister (in The Queen and The Deal, both also written by Morgan). Sheen gives him intriguing ambiguity, creating a man of strong moral fiber but also veiled ambition and a rising ego. He wants to do the right thing, but he also wants to get the credit and accrue political capital he can spend. His two sides are frequently at odds; the film’s best scenes come when Clinton shines a light on his colleague’s calculating cynicism.

Those are the scenes where Clinton is at his most interesting, playing mentor to the Prime Minister and seeing through him even when Blair has convinced himself of the purity of his intentions. Clinton is played by Dennis Quaid, who during public scenes, press conferences, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal gives a performance of the oft impersonated President much like one of his oft impersonations — a credible though sometimes distracting mimic that doesn’t go much deeper than the surface, apart from his best scenes with Blair. Hillary Clinton is played by Hope Davis, who already closely resembles the First Lady — with the help of excellent hairstyling, costume, and makeup — and so doesn’t resort to the self-conscious aping of mannerisms.

But I preferred the scenes with their British counterparts. The marriage between Tony Blair and his wife Cherie is the film’s most special relationship, showing an average couple arguing over laundry in an early scene and then thrust upon the international stage, but nevertheless maintaining a warm, unpretentious rapport away from shoptalk and intrigue. Helen McCrory gives one of my favorite performances as Cherie; with wily intelligence and humor she brings Tony down to Earth, lending him support while remaining his equal. Their unburdened romance is a marked contrast to the grand American soap opera of interns and special prosecutors, which is part of what gives their scenes their intimate fascination. Extraordinary men rise to power, but they were men before they were extraordinary.