The Damned United, based on David Peace’s 2006 bestselling novel on British football manager Brian Clough’s brief, disastrous tenure of Leeds United, is a stirring ode to the sport, and will have even the most embittered football widow or widower cheering at the screen, desperate for the underdog to triumph.
The underdog in this case is Clough, deftly portrayed by the chameleon-like Michael Sheen (New Moon, The Queen, Underworld), who is shaping up to be one of the finest actors of his generation.
In 1974, Clough – in retrospect regarded as “the best manager that the English national side never had” – is a former footballer and wunderkind manager, renowned for taking Derby United from the bottom of the second division to their first league championship, with the considerable aid of his intuitive assistant, Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall).
He is also his own worst enemy, his overwhelming desire to win often translating into arrogance and cringe-inducing interviews with the press, much to the chagrin of his superiors.
When we first meet him in the film, he’s just taken the reins of Leeds United, and immediately antagonizes both the team and the city, dubbing the players “bad champions” and deriding the managerial approach of his predecessor Don Revies (Colm Meaney), for whom he has a personal vendetta.
As the film unfolds, darting between 1974 and Clough’s increasingly desperate attempts to manage the hostile Leeds, and the previous six years, charting his and Taylor’s rise with Derby, and his mounting obsession with besting Revies’ team, creating a subtle mystery to unfold. Why is Clough managing his one-time rivals?
Sheen elevates the film, fleshing out Clough’s complicated mix of charisma and cockiness. Sheen ensures Clough’s pure intent and integrity shine through, even in his most abrasive and vain moments.
You will find yourself both flying high and plunging to the depths as he does, throughout his tumultuous career.
Just as Clough would be nothing without Taylor (“the goods” behind their dream team), who has a nose for unexpected talent and a level-headed attitude, Sheen’s successful portrayal owes much to his electric chemistry with Spall. The mutual love and respect the two men share is palpable, and the intricacies of their relationship add intrigue and propel the narrative.
The film’s solid emotional core is emphasized by fine cinematography, with scenes that resemble iconic retro photographs, attentive but subtle period details, and a slightly grainy filter that seamlessly blends with real-life footage from the 1960/70s.
Today’s football appears brash by comparison – the movie is also a nostalgic appreciation of when the sport was less about celebrity players and more about sportsmanship, although seeds to today’s incarnation are sown and shown, with references to increasingly high salaries, and the depiction of ego clashes and media frenzy.
The Damned United scores a cinematic hat trick, with a pitch-perfect leading man, a compelling tale and a stunning evocation of the “beautiful game”. If you despise sports, and sports flicks, “selflessly” treat your favorite football freaks, disguise your enjoyment and rack up a credit for the next film of your choice. Everyone’s a winner.
(Four out of five stars.)
The Damned United (Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Classics, 97 mins)
Directed by Tom Hooper
Produced by Andy Harries & Grainne Marmion
Written by Peter Morgan (script), David Peace (novel)
Starring Michael Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Colm Meaney, Timothy Spall