— by TOM ELCE —
Charting the disastrous 44-day tenure of elite soccer manager Brian Clough at Leeds United Football Club, “The Damned United” exists as a distinctly cinematic experience, occasionally divorced from what inside sources claim was the reality of the events depicted therein, but nonetheless eminently watchable.
For kickball non-fans, the film’s a triumph of sharp, witty dialogue brought to endearing life by Michael Sheen, who by now is becoming something of a biopic specialist (having taken on roles of real-life people in both “The Queen” and “Frost/Nixon”).
For those who are fans of Britain’s numero uno sport, it offers a simultaneously funny and dramatic window to a time when injured players might have been carried off the field of play on the back of the team physio — when the sport was grittier.
Adapted from the David Peace bestseller “The Damned Utd,” director Tom Hooper’s film interweaves Clough’s brief taste of life at Leeds — then (with then being 1967-73 with Derby, 1974 with Leeds) the most prominent football club in England — with his significantly more successful time with Derby County, who he took from the Second Division to the First, an achievement hinting at the golden age that would later come at Nottingham Forest.
A cocky young manager with a gift for not mincing his words, he would arrive at Leeds a controversial figure and leave an even bigger one, “The Damned United” pointing the finger towards a resentment of Leeds’ golden-boy former manager Don Revie (Colm Meaney) as a chief catalyst for his temporary downfall.
Contrasting Clough’s fortunes at these rival clubs to create the image of a confounding mad genius, “The Damned United” suprises in how it ably juggles wit and drama. While the screenplay and source material are undeniably responsible for much of this success, it’s lead Michael Sheen who really makes things tick. Adopting a fitting tone of voice and exuding palpable charisma, he takes very line given to him and gives one of the most convincing performances of the year. He appears to breathe every breath and believe every word the script calls for him to speak, coming off not so much as an actor reciting dialogue as a fleshed-out character with thoughts and feelings that limit and boost him.
As Clough, he’s prone to loss of emotional control at regular intervals, and sells all that transpires with aplomb. The interview he takes prior to being formally unveiled as Leeds manager (in which he berates the existing regime at the club, including its “cheating” players) sets the standard for all that follows.
Of course, a fine lead performance doesn’t make an entire movie, so it’s relieving that “The Damned United” is as self-assured as is. Warts and all, it’s difficult to dislike any one scene it concocts, either due to the delicate direction of Hooper, the layered storytelling of screenwriter or the lush visuals of cinematographer Ben Smithard. The three, prominent in television, have thankfully combined with a feature film that goes to show that lowly British cinema need only the input of its best TV men to deliver a much-needed home run.
A film made so engaging by this trio, it’s little surprise the scenes featured therein are best appreciated in twos and threes. A lushly shot training sequence prior to Derby’s cup encounter with then-successful Leeds has Clough, alongside assistant manager Peter Taylor (an understated Timothy Spall), excitedly anticipating his encounter with icon Don Revie, the two set in the lower corner of the screen against a gorgeous country landscape leads into one of wrenching disappointment — Revie blanks Clough on his team’s arrival at Derby’s stadium. Taken seperately, these are very well done scenes; considered together they’re even better, putting the interlocking moments in time into their proper context.
Suffocated by his own desire to outdo a man he once idolised but now loathed, the Clough depicted in “The Damned United” is effectively portrayed as the master of his own downfall. From the awkward, confrontational introduction he makes to his new team of players to their third successive defeat, his doom is glimpsed in a nutshell, climaxing with what director Hooper powerfully portrays as the most humiliating moment of Clough’s professional career. Invited for a televised interview following the termination of his Leeds contract, Clough takes his seat only to witness the England manager Revie come into the scene. What transpires seals the triumph of “The Damned United” as a worthwhile movie experience.
“The Damned United” isn’t a masterpiece or even a great film. It’s too hampered by the way the actual scenes on the pitch are shot — one game is done for dramatic effect to such a nauseating degree that it appears the players are performing in near pitch-black conditions. That’s the only major flaw in an otherwise thoughtful and informative movie, a testament to Michael Sheen’s credentials and British film’s continuing need for its best TV personalities to do what they do on the big screen.
“The Damned United” opens on limited release in the U.S. on Oct. 9. It opened in the U.K. on March 27.
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