In a bizarre bit of marketing, the TV biopic "The Deal" is being sold to Americans as "the prequel to 'The Queen'." While it's true that both films share a writer, director, and star, the idea of "The Queen" as the launching point for some sort of blockbuster action franchise is mildly amusing ("Queen Harder"? "2 Queen 2 Furious"?), and the use of the term "prequel," as if Elizabeth II were Indiana Jones, teeters on the ridiculous.
But it's also easy to see why Hollywood would want to use the p-word. After the success of the 2006 Helen Mirren film, why not use the prestige of that movie to sell a not-so-loosely connected docudrama on Tony Blair? After all, screenwriter Peter Morgan has admitted he envisions both "The Deal" and "The Queen" as the first two parts of a possible trilogy of sorts covering the career of the former Prime Minister. And by wild luck, both films come with Michael Sheen in the Blair role, and with Stephen Frears behind the camera. How could you not promote "The Deal" using these connections?
In 2007, "The Deal" had long since come and gone from British television, having aired on Channel 4 back in September 2003. But the States were abuzz with "The Queen," and so HBO dug out the telepic, updated its "where are they now?" epilogue to reflect recent developments, and introduced it to American viewers in November. Those expecting more along the lines of Mirren's take on the human side of a monarch might have walked away disappointed, but anyone with a love for unabashedly wonky political drama was rewarded with a tight, intriguing overview of behind-the-scenes scheming found in the London of the 1990s.
The subject is the friendship/rivalry between Blair (Sheen) and Gordon Brown (David Morrissey). We know Brown now as the current Prime Minister, but in 2003 he was the man stuck in the on deck circle (to use a decidedly non-British term), serving as Chancellor to the Exchequer since 1997, when Blair became PM.
It had long been rumored that Blair's path to Downing Street was the result of a deal between Blair and Brown regarding the 1994 election of a new Labor Party leader. That deal, and the issues leading up to that election (going all the way back to Blair and Brown's first meeting in the late 1980s), is the focus of Morgan's screenplay.
While the script is packed with localized chunks of modern history that will likely not click with most American viewers - Margaret Thatcher's resignation, the scandals plaguing John Major's administration, and a host of other domestic issues between - the screenplay keeps the focus on the whys, not the whats, so that even if the intricacies lose you, you'll still follow along with the bulk of the drama. The core of the story is the relationship of these two men and how ambition ultimately wedges between them.
Both lead performances are top notch, dealing beyond the expected celebrity impersonation game. As it is in "The Queen," Sheen's take on Blair is all in the attitude, and the same goes doubly for Morrissey, who turns Gordon Brown into a titan of bluster. Their antics lack the emotional heft of "The Queen," but that's so much a fault but a change of focus; the Oscar-winning film examines the humanity behind public figures, while "The Deal" is a straight-up insider-politics study of ambition on a national scale. You may never think of the two PMs the same way again.
"The Deal" arrives on DVD as part of the Weinsteins' "Miriam Collection." The version included here is the 2007 American edit, identical to the 2003 Channel 4 edit except for the postscript, which substitutes new, more relevant text. (Essentially, "Brown is still not Prime Minister" is replaced with "Hey, Brown is now Prime Minister." Nothing to get riled about.)
Video & Audio
"The Deal" is one darkly shot film, bathed in shadows and bluish light. The black levels hold up very well in this anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) presentation, providing a crisp look to all that darkness.
The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is a straightforward affair, providing simple clarity to the dialogue-heavy work. Optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles are offered.
A commentary track finds Peter Morgan and producer Christine Langan discussing the politics behind the film, its blend of fiction and fact, the use of real news clips to help advance the story, etc. It's a nice, full chat.
"A Conversation with Stephen Frears" (21:55) excuses the director's absence from the commentary track. Frears, a fascinating talker, goes on at length about the British politics of the 90s, his views on Blair and Brown, and, of course, the film itself. It's a newly minted interview, allowing for the occasional comparison to "The Queen" and quibbles about the Blair years. Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen.
Text biographies of Blair and Brown are also included. A batch of previews for other Miriam Collection titles rounds out the set.
While far more limited in dramatic scope than "The Queen," "The Deal" remains appealing thanks to its "West Wing"-type wonkiness and top notch performances. Recommended.