The Deal (review)

Dirty Tricks

They’re trying to sell this 2003 movie as “the prequel to The Queen.” It’s right there on the DVD box. Don’t be fooled by it. Yes, it’s from screenwriter Peter Morgan and director Stephen Frears, the exceptional creative team behind one of 2006’s best movies. And, yes, more pertinently, it stars the extraordinary Michael Sheen as British politician Tony Blair, a role he would go on to reprise in The Queen, in what would be one of 2006’s best performances.
But it’s not a prequel to The Queen, unless yesterday’s newspaper is a prequel to today’s. And it’s not that The Deal isn’t an absorbing film in its own right. But there was an entirely different dynamic at work in The Queen than there is here, an entirely different kind of drama, and one that, frankly, played to a wider audience than this one will. The 2006 film was about the subtle battle for the hearts and minds of the British public between the monarch and the prime minister in the days after the death of Princess Diana — it was about a paradigm shift that wasn’t just about what was going on in England but what was going on throughout Western culture, as celebrity finally cemented its role as the new royalty. That film was about politics, sure, but it was about a whole lot more than that.

The Deal is just about politics, and it’s pretty darn wonky, at that. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that this flick, made for British TV, would ever have gotten released on DVD here in the U.S. if Tony Blair’s other partner in the backroom deal of the title weren’t Gordon Brown, who became prime minister of Great Britain in 2007. (The movie only aired here, on HBO, late last year.)

That said, The Deal is absolutely worth a look for American fans of British drama even if much of the political stuff will go over our heads, because of the intense performances by Sheen (Blood Diamond) and the fantastic David Morrissey (The Other Boleyn Girl) as Brown. The gist of the secret deal — which is, as depicted here, based on fact and not in dispute — is easy enough to grasp. When Blair and Brown were both freshmen members of Parliament in the 1990s they worked closely together to promote the cause of the liberal Labour party. But as their influence grew — not always in the same direction; Blair moved to the right and Brown stayed stubbornly to the left — and the opportunity to lead the party opened up, they began to butt heads. Eventually, they agreed to “let” Blair take the party leadership with the understanding that he would hold it only so long before stepping down in favor of Brown.

It was all supposedly for the good of the party, though it’s hard to watch this — especially seeing as how they’ve both gotten to be not just Labour leader but prime minister — and not think: What a couple of conniving scumbags. And probably if I really understood British politics, I’d think even worse of them. But I can only applaud the slippery turns by Sheen and Morrissey, who’ve now only fortified their positions as two of my favorite actors working today. They’re thrilling to watch here, even if what their characters are up to isn’t.

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