When Stephen Frears' The Queen came out in 2006, all the buzz emphasized Helen Mirren's icy performance as London's reclusive royal highness. The ubiquitous praise lead to her Oscar win, but it overwhelmed recognition of the movie's secret weapon: Michael Sheen as Tony Blair, quietly pressuring his Majesty to face the public in the wake of Princess Diana's untimely demise. There's a reason why Sheen conveyed the nuances of Blair's role in the event, which transpired a mere three months after the Prime Minister rose to power -- he had practice. The Deal, a fantastic made-for-TV movie Frears directed in 2003, tracked Blair's cunning (and morally questionable) instincts in the years leading up to his position at the top of the Labor Party.
Sheen played Blair in The Deal first, and it's both a superior performance and a superior film. Whereas The Queen had a tabloid hook and only tangentially explored the deeper political ramifications of a reclusive national leader, The Deal delves into precisely how Blair managed to emerge at the top of British politics with a series of calculated maneuvers. Political drama at its finest, The Deal hit DVD in the United States last month, where it has been touted as "the prequel to The Queen." That's not quite fair; The Queen is the sequel to The Deal, and the two movies ought to be seen as a single, wholly fascinating package depicting British politics in the 1990s.
Frears showed up at a special screening of The Deal last night in New York City, at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater, where he revealed his unkind feelings toward Blair. "He was an unprincipled spiv," Frears said (confusing American members of the audience), and the movie shows it: Blair befriends Gordon Brown (David Morrissey) early in his career, pretending to support Brown's bid for the top spot, then basically pushes him aside with his own ambitions. Frears noted that the high point of Blair's career took place when he managed to elucidate the tragedy of 9/11, something George W. Bush himself couldn't quite accomplish. "He was articulate and could describe people's feelings," Frears said. "On the whole, I prefer the Queen, who's incapable of describing feelings." Despite his prejudice, Frears does a remarkable job depicting Blair's charisma in The Deal, particularly in the way he gets Brown to open up to him, and later uses that to attack his weaknesses.
Of course, Frears isn't the only reason The Deal works so well. Like The Queen, the movie's screenplay was written by Peter Morgan, whose deft skill at recreating secretive conversations behind the closed door of governmental powers rivals that of Aaron Sorkin. Fortunately, Morgan has plans to make a third movie about Blair, this one detailing his professional relationships with presidents Bill Clinton and Bush. Cue the 9/11 speech, and put Frears back in the director's chair.