Labour members Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) and Gordon Brown (David Morrissey) begin a friendship during the rein of Margaret Thatcher. They despair at the lack of modernisation in Labour and vow to change it, bringing the fight to the Conservatives. Brown, an up and coming politician, is the favourite to lead the party into victory but his bad temper and Blair’s likeability start to turn things around. Both are then rumoured to be running for leader, leaving Brown feeling betrayed. They meet up to decide the fate of their friendship and their party.
That line at the beginning of certain films (or TV movies in this case), ‘Based on a true story’, always evokes a feeling of doubt. Some parts of the story may be true but it’s impossible to distinguish between what is real and what’s been invented by the screenwriter (unless you know the subject inside and out). The Deal is no exception but thankfully the drama and acting is so compelling that you probably won’t care. It may not be the most accurate film ever made about the subject but it makes for damn good television.
The Big and Small Screens
The Deal is the first of a supposed ‘trilogy’ of Tony Blair films (all connected by actor Michael Sheen and writer Peter Morgan) and also the first collaboration between Morgan and director Stephen Frears. However unlike the second Frears/Morgan collaboration, The Queen, this wasn’t chosen to be shown at the cinema. A wise move as it feels distinctively tele-visual with a pace and tone not suited for the big screen. This isn’t a criticism, as the story of a small scale rivalry between two politicians doesn’t have enough scope for the cinema but feels instantly compelling at home. At a brisk hour and twenty minutes, it’s not very long either.
Due to this short running time, there’s very little room for meandering about. There are no dull subplots to get in the way of the compelling two-hander between Brown and Blair and this makes the drama all the more entertaining. This is surprising because on the face of it, a film about how Blair got to power doesn’t sound particularly interesting. When you lay it out on paper, about how the two friends bickered to get to the top, it comes across as rather uneventful.
This is where the brilliant writing of Peter Morgan comes in as he makes the most mundane situations compelling and vibrant. Cinema may be the directors medium, but television belongs to the writers and Morgan proves this superbly. He does this by building up little incidents such as Brown winning his constituency, making waves in Parliament and criticising the Conservatives with conviction, Blair backing his friend to get to the top but then making headlines in the press with his no nonsense approach. This is done without showboating but the simple process of letting the situation unfold; focusing not on the politics but the people behind it, the backstabbing and the petty arguments.
Michael Sheen and David Morrissey
It also helps that the two leads are superbly played by Michael Sheen and David Morrissey. Morrissey is especially impressive as Gordon Brown, getting the mannerisms just right but not letting them dominate the performance; allowing the various sides of the person to come through. He’s not simply showing the image we have of Brown as a public figure with all the insecurity and anger, but the passion, ideology and ambition more apparent at the beginning of his career.
Michael Sheen does a good job as well, making Blair a sympathetic figure, someone who clearly has a lot of charisma and charm. This makes it easier to understand how he came to power and how he came from behind to supplant Gordon Brown as the obvious choice for leader of New Labour. If there’s a fault it’s that he’s too sympathetic, not managing to get across the weaker parts of his character. This could be down to the time setting as this aspect doesn’t really come to the fore until later in his life but an allusion to this part of his character would have made for a more rounded performance.
This does epitomise the main flaw of the drama; the time span. Events start to get really interesting when the film draws to a close. Perhaps a longer running series, detailing the rise and fall of New Labour would have had more dramatic impact as the ending lacks any real punch. Obviously this is about the deal (hence the title) between the two men and how they came to power but this is too abrupt. There’s more story to be told here and with such brilliant writing and two captivating performances, it’s a shame it has to end so early. While Sheen would be allowed to portray Blair again with an even better performance, The Queen was a disappointing film and is nowhere near in the same league as this compelling drama. Usually less is more but in this case a direct sequel is definitely needed.