Ask any soccer fan and they’ll tell you the same thing: You’ll find more drama in one season of football than in any of Shakespeare’s artsy-fartsy works. Take the story of Brian Clough; the coach who managed to bring dizzying heights of success to several fledgling teams in the 1960’s and whose blinding hubris turned him into a national joke; the man who was awarded the plum position of managing Leeds United (then the greatest team in England) and was sacked 44 days into the season. If soccer is a Shakespearean drama, then The Damned United is Richard III.
Michael Sheen stars as Clough, in all his posturing Northern glory. The film begins in 1974, with Clough being named coach of Leeds, replacing the beloved Don Revie (Colm Meaney) who has been hired as the new manager of England. His appointment is met with disdain from the Leeds community; no doubt fuelled by Clough’s admission that he has taken the job out of spite. Director Tom Hooper bounces between Clough’s doomed run at Leeds to his glorious successes in 1968, in which he and his faithful assistant Pete Taylor (an excellent Timothy Spall) coached 2nd division Derby County all the way to the top of the 1st division. The duo shares an almost uncanny knack for developing successful teams. However, as we learn over the course of the film, success for Clough is relative. Being recognised as the best isn’t enough for him; he’s looking to be canonised.
If phrases like ‘2nd division’ and ‘Derby County’ have you scratching your head in confusion, don’t be frightened away from The Damned United. Hooper manages to condense the seemingly incomprehensible English League for the layman (of which I happily categorise myself). Even the most football-ignorant will be able to relate to film’s core; specifically Clough’s obsession with besting Revie’s accomplishments. He is Salieri to Revie’s Mozart. Now, if you’re a football fan scared of the Richard III and Amadeus references, don’t you run away either. The Damned United captures the most important essence of the sports movie: the anticipation. There are plenty of pre-game jitters in which the players look like they’re about to land at Normandy, and inspirational locker room speeches that could have been penned by Patton himself. That sensation of walking onto the pitch (or onto the stage, or hell, even down the aisle) is portrayed perfectly here.
If any screenwriter is suited to making potentially unsympathetic characters seem sympathetic, it’s Peter Morgan. Here he adapts David Peace’s book of the same name; a fictionalised account of Clough’s career that became the center of a legal scandal. But that’s all par for the course. Morgan previously penned The Queen, in which he and Helen Mirren managed to make dear Lizzy seem far more lucid and spritely than the matriarch herself has managed in the past two decades. He also adapted his play Frost/Nixon for the big screen, in which one of the most despised U.S. President’s of all time (portrayed by Frank Langella) seemed more tragic than evil.
The phenomenal achievements of those previous films could be attributed to Morgan’s lucky charm and usually unsung hero, Michael Sheen, who portrayed Tony Blair and David Frost in these pictures. I would call him Britain’s best impressionist, but that feels like a dismissive insult when you look closer at what he’s really doing. Sheen embodies these historical figures and doesn’t drop his standards in The Damned United. It is one of the best performances of the year and I hope it doesn’t go as unrecognised as his previous works.
The film is likely to gain detractors from those who dispute the ‘truth’ as presented in the film. As someone who doesn’t follow soccer closely (or who hadn’t even heard of Brian Clough before), I can’t comment on the historical accurateness. However, on an emotional level, the film is sound and effective. Although Hooper tacks on a relatively happy ending, the film is at its best when trawling the murky depths of Clough’s obsession. That being said, the relationship between Clough and Taylor is the heart of this film. Clough, like Richard III, ends up betraying his “brother”, but not even Shakespeare could have written as bromantic an ending as seen here.
*The Damned United is already screening in VIC. It expands to WA 26/11 and NSW 3/12.