The Damned United (2009)

2010 #85
Tom Hooper | 90 mins | download (HD) | 15 / R

The Damned UnitedI have no love for football. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’d certainly never heard of Brian Clough before this film came along. I didn’t even bother to put it on my list of 50 Films I Didn’t See last year, despite its relatively high-profile release (here, anyway) because I wasn’t interested — and I’ve put Twilight and High School Musical 3 on those lists before now. (Which definitely says more about me and my dubious list-compiling criteria than it does about any of the films involved.) I’m not even entirely sure why I wound up watching it, to be honest; a mixture of it being free to download in HD and a couple of recommendations.

But I’m glad I did, because, even though it’s technically about football, The Damned United is a little bit brilliant.

For one thing, it’s not actually about football, not really. It’s about Brian Clough, what he was like, why he behaved the way he did. Of course it operates in the world of clubs and divisions and transfers and training and fan love and fan hatred, but those intricacies don’t really matter in themselves. What matters is how Clough reacts to them, how he uses them, how they motivate him and make him and ruin him. I care no more about football than I did before the film began, but I still enjoyed and engaged with every minute of the film.

The main person to thank for this is Michael Sheen, who, as I’m sure you know, stars as Clough, manager of Derby County and, later, Leeds United. Some have claimed Sheen is just a talented mimic, The Damned Sheenan impressionist who can act a little, due to his penchant for playing real people with unerring accuracy — Kenneth Williams in Fantabulosa!, David Frost in Frost/Nixon, Tony Blair in The Deal, The Queen and The Special Relationship — but those people are wrong. I have no idea if Sheen’s Clough is anything like the real man — though, based on form, I imagine he’s spot on — but it’s an outstanding performance regardless. Effortlessly charming on first encounter, apparently likeable even away from the media spotlight, any flaws are easily overlooked because he seems like a nice bloke. But this isn’t an airbrushed hagiography (unlike the amusing US poster): the cocksure and awkward-to-work-with man beneath the charismatic veneer is gradually revealed.

Of course this is partly down to Peter Morgan’s screenplay, particularly its two-headed structure that plays Clough’s 44 day stint as Leeds’ manager at the same time as the six preceding years that led him there — which initially seems needlessly complex but unveils its reasoning as Clough’s character is simultaneously revealed by each thread — but it’s also unquestionably in Sheen’s performance. There’s no shocking revelation, no big change for the character — he’s not obviously a different man at the start and the end — but the viewer is led to see the reality, the complexity, which comes out by getting to know the man over 90 minutes. The fact Sheen hasn’t, to my knowledge, bagged a single award for the role is testament to either a glut of good performances last year or indifferent bias (such as my own).

The Damned BromanceThough this is Sheen’s show, the rest of the cast give able support. Most notable is Timothy Spall as Clough’s right-hand man, Peter Taylor, the quiet force behind Clough’s showy, mouthy public face. Their relationship is — in nasty modern parlance — a “bromance” (I apologise), a fact only underlined by the final scene. It may not be apparent until late on, but if the film is Clough then his relationship with Taylor is its heart. It’s a subtler role that Spall still manages to pull everything out of. Colm Meaney and Jim Broadbent are also noteworthy, as Clough’s unknowing rival and his increasingly exasperated chairman respectively.

Morgan’s screenplay and Tom Hooper’s direction are mostly very good, with some irritants. Intertitles telling us what’s happening should either have been dramatised or dropped — some are needlessly repetitive, others could easily have been turned into a short scene or a couple of lines of dialogue. “Show don’t tell” and all that. On a related note however, the graphics showing clubs moving up the league table, and displaying full-time scores from key matches on screen, works just fine, and sometimes excellently: the simple statement “Leeds 0 – QPR 1” speaks volumes (yes, even if you don’t like football — it works in context).

Hooper’s primary flaw is to indulge in a form of close-up framing which we’re seeing more and more, particularly in British TV dramas (they did it all the time in Luther, for example, The Damned Fouland I seem to remember it in Red Riding too), and which is frankly irritating. Essentially, it involves placing the actor’s head (or more of the body, should it be a longer shot) in the lower half of the frame, with the top half being completely empty — blank wall, or sky, or whatever. It looks like the 16:9 image has been framed for 2.35:1 and someone forgot to crop it. I don’t know if there’s something I’m missing, but I don’t see the point of it, ever.

Still, such niggles pale next to Sheen’s work. I don’t imagine The Damned United will do anything to change anyone’s attitudes about “the beautiful game” (pfft), but that’s irrelevant. Sometimes an outstanding lead performance isn’t enough to make a film — just look at Ray — but other times, it is. Love or loathe football, this is an exceptional character study.

5 out of 5

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