One of the most famous dinner meetings in Blighty's recent history -- at which Gordon Brown agreed to stand aside so Tony Blair could run unopposed for Labour Party leader in 1994 -- forms the dramatic spine of "The Deal." Well cast, smoothly directed telepic could have an afterlife at fests, given helmer Stephen Frears' rep.

One of the most famous dinner meetings in Blighty’s recent history — at which (now Chancellor) Gordon Brown agreed to stand aside so Tony Blair could run unopposed for Labour Party leader in 1994 — forms the dramatic spine of “The Deal,” a cheeky rather than dramatically hard-hitting look at friendship is only a relative term in politics. Well cast, smoothly directed telepic (shot on film) could have an afterlife at fests, given helmer Stephen Frears’ rep, though many niceties of characterization and in-jokes will be lost on non-Brits. Pic aired Sept. 28 on minority web Channel 4, amid much curiosity, especially given Blair’s current embattled status.

Based (uncredited) on journalist James Naughtie’s 2001 book, “The Rivals,” film lays out its authenticity in an opening caption: “Although some scenes and dialogue have been invented, this film is based on actual events and parliamentary record.” However, a subsequent caption adds a quote from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”: “Much of what follows is true.”

As there were only two people present at the table at the Granita eatery, in Islington, north London, on May 31, 1994, it’s a moot point to debate what was actually said. In any event, it’s surprising scripter Peter Morgan did not capitalize on that freedom and come up with a scene that pushes the envelope a bit more. As elsewhere in the movie, historical exactitude often cramps a larger sense of drama. Though slickly made, “The Deal” is still more of a docudrama than a movie in its own right.

After a teaser opening, with Blair (Michael Sheen) phoning to suggest the private dinner with Brown (David Morrissey), film flashbacks 12 years, to the pair’s first meeting in 1982, when Brown is asked to share a cramped parliamentary office with the eager-beaver young MP. Both actors, who look only vaguely like the real men but accurately ape their voices and physical mannerisms, tread a fine line between mimicry and performance.

Brown comes off best throughout the movie, and emerges as its de facto central character. In Morrissey’s buttoned-down perf, Brown is a proud Scot who’s worked his way up through conviction and sweat but lacks charisma; in Sheen’s more caricatured perf, Blair is more a southern English dandy and opportunist, loaded with charm but slim on character. A basic weakness of the script is not convincingly showing how these two polar opposites ever became friends.

Using copious library footage, film’s first half is a rapid trot through British politics from Margaret Thatcher’s reign. During their years in opposition, it’s Brown rather than Blair who consistently looks like a Labour leader in waiting, and it’s from that perception that an “arrangement” is struck between the two that, if Brown eventually goes for “the top job,” he’ll take Blair with him.

However, when he gets a chance, after Neil Kinnock’s resignation as Labour leader, Brown refuses to go for the position — for reasons never fully explained here — and it’s that weakness that Blair later exploits in a subsequent leadership contest when others push Blair to try for the top job. Pic ends, more with a whimper than a bang, with the famous but brief dinner meeting (Brown only stays for a glass of water), during which Blair promises Brown the chancellorship and total control of the economy if he steps aside in the leadership contest.

With nothing revealed (or invented) here that hasn’t already been published, pic’s pleasures lie more in the small details. Paul Rhys contribs a chillingly Machiavellian perf as Peter Mandelson, Blair’s onetime spinmeister, and Dexter Fletcher is on the money in the briefer role of Charlie Whelan, Brown’s straight-talking lieutenant. Pic doesn’t trespass into either of the two protags’ personal lives: Aside from one waspish remark about Brown (“He had his chance, and he bottled “), Cherie Blair (Elizabeth Berrington) is almost invisible.

Tech credits are smooth at all levels, with Alwin Kuchler’s lensing imparting a cool, cold eye on all the machinations.

The Deal

U.K.

Production

A Channel 4 presentation of a Granada Television production. Produced by Christine Langdon. Executive producer, Andy Harries. Directed by Stephen Frears. Screenplay, Peter Morgan.

Crew

Camera (color), Alwin Kuchler; editor, Lucia Zucchetti; music, Nathan Larson; production designer, Michael Pickwoad; art director, Malcolm Stone; costume designer, Odile Dicks-Mireaux; sound (stereo), Reg Mills, Adrian Rhodes; associate producer, Peter Morgan; assistant director, Stuart Renfrew; casting, Leo Davis. Reviewed on videocassette, London, Sept. 25, 2003. Running time: 80 MIN.

With

David Morrissey, Michael Sheen, Frank Kelly, Paul Rhys, Dexter Fletcher, Matt Blair, Elizabeth Berrington, Valerie Edmond.
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