The late 1960's saw British football manager Brian Clough (Michael Sheen, "The Queen," "Frost/Nixon"), together with his trusty lieutenant and scout extraordinaire Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall, "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"), change the fates of second tier teams Hartlepool and Derby County. But Clough, who never forgot the (possibly) imagined slight of top-ranked tier one Leeds United manager Don Revie (Colm Meaney, TV's "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," "Law Abiding Citizen"), left Taylor behind in a bid to outperform Revie with "The Damned United."
Adapted by constant Sheen collaborator Peter Morgan ("Longford," "The Queen," "Frost/Nixon") from a controversial novel by David Peace (Clough's family sued), "The Damned United" is one of the best sports films ever made, despite the paucity of play on the actual field. Where British viewers may find factual errors to fault the film with, the toughest trial for Americans will be getting them into the theater. Rest assured, although I have been in Europe to witness the insanity of a World Cup final, I knew nothing about this chapter in English football history, yet was enthralled from the get-go. Many think Sheen has been unfairly overlooked by the Academy for past performances, but his Brian Clough is a career best. As his behind-the-scenes partner, Timothy Spall makes an indelible impression as a man who was the unassuming opposite of Cough's egotistical showboater.
"The Damned United" is the story of how one man's insufferable ego blinded him to what was driving him - a rivalry bordering on hatred for another manager that obscured the talents which had made him successful to begin with. Clough took Derby from the bottom of the second division to the top of the first, famously commenting 'I certainly wouldn't say I'm the best manager in the business, but I'm in the top one,' a quote which neglected to give any credit to Taylor, whose signing of young talent John O'Hare (Martin Compston, "Sweet Sixteen," "Red Road") and John McGovern (Colin Harris) and whose faith in older player Dave Mackay (Brian McCardie, "Rob Roy") were integral to Derby's success. Clough really bit off more than he could chew, however, in taking Derby club owner Sam Longson (Jim Broadbent, "Inkheart," "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince") for a fool. Having already antagonized the man by signing players Longson could ill afford without his knowledge, Clough ignored Longson's plea to rest key players before a world cup match rather than swallow his pride over a game against Leeds which no longer had any meaning in Derby's standing. Derby's best players end up on the injured roster, and Clough is insulted at game's end by Leed's Captain Billy Bremner (Stephen Graham, "Inkheart," "Public Enemies'" Baby Face Nelson), who wishes him luck in Europe. Clough lays Derby's resulting cup game loss at Longson's door, then tries to secure his standing by submitting his and Taylor's resignations (without Taylor's input). Longson and his board of directors call Clough's bluff, putting Mackay in his place.
It's not long before the pair receive offers, and Taylor is very happy to go to Brighton, where he looks forward to taking another struggling team and turning them around with Clough, who eventually is persuaded to sign by all the perks Brighton offers, including an all expense paid Majorcan vacation and huge raise in salary. But while in Spain, Clough gets an offer he cannot refuse - Revie has been called up as European manager leaving his position with Leeds open. Crushing Taylor with his unethical behavior, Clough goes to Leeds and promptly informs the team that everything they have achieved so far was by cheating and that they are not to even mention the name of their beloved former manager again. Clough and his new team clash at ever step, Leeds gets off to the worst start in twenty years, and, after only forty-four days, Clough is sacked.
Even without being familiar with the intricacies of regional accents, it is clear that Sheen has adopted a very particular one for Clough along with idiosyncratic behaviors and an impressive ease with a football. Sheen also conveys the dichotomies that make up Clough. There is an underlying sense of not being considered worthy, a need to belong, that is evidenced in the way Clough sets a stage in his humble Derby office for a post game drink with Revie, an expensive bottle of wine purchased, its label facing just so. Additionally there is the neglectful love Clough feels for Taylor who is praised within the realms of their own club, but rarely mentioned to the outside world. In turn Spall makes us feel the unvoiced intellect behind Taylor's gaze, his understanding of the infuriating makeup of his friend and boss and his devastation when he cannot steer the man away from self destruction. The relationship is summed after Taylor suffers a heart attack and tells Clough it came on from working for him - the admission hangs in the air as a joking truth, one which Taylor nudges towards Clough who hesitates then moves on. The two are terrific acting allies. Support is fine across the board as well. Meany is a crusty old sports star who plays fairer than Clough gives him credit for. Broadbent bends his performance to initially appear as the befuddled benefactor Clough sees him as before showing Longson is made of tougher stuff.
If there is a weakness to Morgan's time shifting script, it is the faint whiff of hooks recycled from "Frost/Nixon" - the drunken call Brian makes to Pete recalls Nixon's to Frost and the bookending television interviews set Clough up first as a contender, then a broken man, just like Nixon in the Frost interviews. But the way Morgan sets up Clough's Leed's run, then moves back and forth in time to fill in back story is very effective and the way he and director Tom Hooper (HBO's "Longford," "John Adams" work in the actual games is abbreviated but punchy. In one of Clough's Derby games, a title card informs 'Leeds 5, Derby 0' as they walk *onto* the field, a strikingly effective and efficient way of just what Clough was up against. Cinematographer Ben Smithard (PBS's "Cranford") frequently dwarfs Clough in the frame, shooting from below. In an early Derby training scene, Clough spouts away to Taylor as rows of estate houses loom over their heads in the background, the men dominated by their rural origins.
"The Damned United" is an intense character study during a unique time in English football history, and it's not just a rise and fall story - the complex Clough rises again in a nicely edited coda featuring real footage of Clough, Taylor and Revie.
Robin did not see this film.
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