By Owen Buchan – Editor-in-Chief of YPR and Spotlight Ordinary Officer
In collaboration with Spotlight Magazine – a student publication that specialises in anything film and tv. Check them out on their website over at: https://spotlightmagazineuoy.wordpress.com/
Stephen Frears and Peter Morgan’s ‘made for TV’ film The Deal (2003) is a niche and underappreciated political drama. It attempts to show the circumstances that lead up to the formation of the highly documented pact between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in 1994. This pact would leave Tony Blair as Prime Minister from 1997 to 2007 and Brown as the Chancellor of the Exchequer -before serving briefly as PM from 2007 to 2010.
This gem captures the intriguing political manoeuvring that Blair and Brown made to try and position themselves as leader of the Labour Party in 1994. Told primarily through the lens of Brown, this film shows the growth of a political friendship in the backdrop of the late 80s and early 90s. Something we are continually reminded of through the constant allusion towards the internal party tensions through director Stephan Frears stylistic integration of newsreels. If you are interested in New Labour and want a brief but enjoyable insight into its formation and thinking behind it, this film is for you.
The plot starts just before the end of the story. As a disgruntled Brown receives an ominous phone call from Blair asking to meet and talk; we are thrown back in time to the 1983 election. A hay day for Thatcher, due to victory in the Falklands that secured her second election victory with a large parliamentary majority. It is this election that ushered in Gordon Brown (played by David Morrissey) and Tony Blair (Micheal Sheen), who are put together in a parliamentary office. From here, the bond and story kicks off.
Brown is clearly established to be the more capable of the two. He is shown to be a grizzled and capable life-long Labour activist. He had already published books and had a range of ideas to re-invent the Labour Party, furthermore, he had many connections including John Smith. Contrasted to Blair, a young and naive lawyer with no political experience, who is parachuted into a safe seat in Sedgefield. Various snide remarks about Blair are made to Brown calling, allegations that he is essentially a Tory. This validates Brown’s initial scepticism towards Blair. Despite this, the overall seemingly better politician Brown takes Blair under his wing and mentors him, laying out his dreams to one day lead the Labour Party and giving Blair a political education.
As the story progresses, we gain an insight into the internal trials and tribulations of the Labour Party. The loss of the 1987 election, which everyone believed would be an almost guaranteed Labour victory shakes the Party to its core and highlights the need for modernisation -which Blair and Brown quietly discuss throughout the film. Come 1992 and a new Labour leader is elected, John Smith, an established figure close to Brown by acting as his mentor, invites a narrative shift. Brown becomes increasingly more unpopular in the Party through an apparent portrayal of arrogance and rigidity in his interactions, which is reported by a growing range of people… even Smith. A stark contrast to Brown, now a rising star of the party with his silver-tonguedness and ability to attract positive media attention.
This switch in popularity becomes apparent to Brown by 1994 when Smith has died from an unexpected heart attack and he is no longer seen as his automatic successor. Both Blair and Brown launch into an offensive to win over Labour MPs but it is clear that Blair has more support. The film then rather poetically ends how it starts, with Blair asking Brown to a cafe to make a deal. Blair proposes that he leads Labour with Brown being a very empowered Chancellor of the Exchequer but with the caveat that Blair will stand down as Leader within his presumed third term. A disheartened Brown accepts.
A major strength of the film is the main actors. Morrissey and Sheen both play Brown and Blair respectively incredibly. Morrissey pulls off a superb bellowing Scottish accent that is commanding but simultaneously lacking authority. He also looks the part, always slightly hunched forward with his head tilted downwards slightly. Overall he captures Brown as an overworked but ambitious figure. Sheen makes an excellent fit for Blair, he is able to encapsulate a youthful and naive vigour of a newly elected MP with no prior political experience. Morrissey and Sheen work very well together. Sheen, short and scrawny in comparison to Morrissey’s taller Brown visually reinforces the initial power dynamic between the two. As the two start to plot against each other toward the end of the film, keeping them completely apart until was an effective stylistic choice.
Broadly speaking, everyone else is well cast. Frank Kelly plays John Smith as an authoritative but also fragile and lively leader. A special mention to Paul Rhys who played Peter Mandelson. Rhys portrays Mandelson as initially naive but also an opportunistic -a weaselly backstabber to Brown by the end of the film. The fixation on Blair and Brown exclusively doesn’t give any room for any other characters’ development or much context about who they are and relation to Blair and Brown. However, this is an understandable choice given the context of the plot.
Stylistically, the film shines. Real newsreels are woven seamlessly into the dialogue and story. At the start, footage of the Falklands War and the 1983 election is shown to set up context as well as footage of the 1987 election later on. Later on in the film, Morrissey and Sheen reenact various speeches and interviews by Blair and Brown, directly quoting them. This helps ground the film in our reality and the political context of the plot. A particularly good example of this is when Brown is being interviewed during the 1992 election results or when Blair is giving his speech about being tough on the causes of crime. These are then directly linked to each character’s respective rise and fall in popularity within the Party and the media.
Overall, if you are looking for an admittedly short but insightful political drama to watch, this is it. It provides a neat insight into the rise of New Labour and the defining deal behind it. It does a great job of giving the viewer a context of the events and logically showing why Brown and Blair embarked upon a modernisation process of Labour. The film does not cast anyone as a villain but a level of pity for Brown is somewhat apparent in the framing. It may inspire a viewer to further research the more complex reasons for the rise of New Labour and even wider events in UK politics during the late 90s. For an introduction and a drama, it is an excellent film.