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The Damned United

United Kingdom 2009
Directed by
Tom Hooper
97 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

The Damned United

Synopsis: In the late 1960s Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) became manager of low-ranking second division English soccer team,Derby County. By 1973 he and his assistant manager, Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), had taken them to the top of the League Table. He was hot property but when he was offered the plum job of managing Leeds United, things started to unravel.

If Michael Sheen was marvellous as David Frost in last year’s Frost/Nixon he is even more impressive here as Brian Clough in a film which is in some ways quite similar. The Damned United is about football, but it is less a sports movie than, like Frost/Nixon, the story of an ambitious individual and how far he is willing to go to make that ambition come true. The thematic resemblance continues at the script level with a drunken telephone call in the middle of the night and a revealing television interview, perhaps not surprising as screenwriter Peter Morgan also wrote Frost/Nixon). Sheen’s gift for taking on the persona of the character he is playing is quite remarkable. At the end of the film we get to see footage of the real Brian Clough and the resemblance is astonishing. It is however, a resemblance achieved not through wigs and prosthetics but seemingly through an internal transformation that manifests itself in vocal and facial expression in an almost uncannily morphological way.

Tim Spall who plays Clough’s right-hand man does not come off as well. I like Spall, but mainly from his Mike Leigh days. He still has a rutabageous working class appeal and he does dog-like devotion well but I’m afraid his range is limited and the archival footage at the film’s end shows what an odd casting choice he was. Having said that, the film is very good at getting the pasty-faced, beer-blotched, nicotine-stained Yorkshire characters right, and Colm Meaney as Leeds manager Don Revie, Clough’s bête noire, and Jim Broadbent as the Derby County Chairman, “Uncle Sam” are both spot on.

Tom Hooper has an unerring feel for his material and gets around the difficulties of recreating the place and time superbly. The film captures the sodden, grubby dreariness of industrial Northern England in the early 70s so well that one can feel the cold dampness sinking into one's bones. As a depiction of English football as it used to be, a no-nonsense working man’s sport, it also delivers. Hooper uses a mixture of archival footage and neatly circumscribed recreations to give us a taste of the game with one particularly impressive scene set in Clough’s bunker office with only the legs of crowd seen through the clerestory window and their roar of appreciation heard as Derby realizes their, and Clough’s hopes.

I was not entirely convinced by the film’s ending, neither the penultimate scene of the rapprochement between Taylor and Clough, which although presumably true, felt a little rushed, or the final scene which summed up what happened to Clough and Revie beyond the events of the film – it felt too tendentious and out of kilter with what had been to that point quite an even-handed account. The Damned United is not the best titled film. It is much kinder, much more compassionate than the title leads you to believe. It is a story of hopes and ambitions and realities that grind them down. It is as effective a drama as you’re likely to see this year.




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