Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Movie Review: The Damned United

The Damned United ***
Directed By:
Tom Hooper.
Written By: Peter Morgan based on the book by David Peace.
Starring: Michael Sheen (Brian Clough), Timothy Spall (Peter Taylor), Colm Meaney (Don Revie), Jim Broadbent (Sam Longson), Stephen Graham (Billy Bremner), Peter McDonald (Johnny Giles).

Michael Sheen excels at playing real life characters. Whether it is Tony Blair in The Queen and The Deal, David Frost in Frost/Nixon or now Brian Clough in The Damned United, Sheen is able to capture real life characters on film just about perfectly. He inhabits his characters, who are all quite different, and disappears into the role. Whenever I see him in another type of movie – like in the god awful Underworld: Rise of the Lycans earlier this year where he played a werewolf – something seems off about him. Perhaps he needs something to base his performances on to be effective. But whatever the reason, he has become to go to British actor when it comes to biopics.

I doubt most North American audiences are going to know who Brian Clough is. I certainly didn’t know before I watched the movie. He is a football (in our world, soccer) manager in England who took a lowly Division II team and in a few short years turned them into Division I champions. He was outspoken and brash, and pissed off a lot of people, but he got results. Along with his faithful sidekick Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), there seemed like nothing he couldn’t do. Then he spoke out one too many times and got fired. But no big deal. It is not long before Leeds United, the biggest name in England football comes calling on him to be there manager. Taylor wants nothing to do with it, but Clough cannot resist.

You see, Clough has always hated Leeds United. It dates back several years when his then still lowly team drew a match with Leeds in the FA Cup, and Clough spent days making sure everything was perfect for them, and their legendary manager, Don Revie (Colm Meaney). Then Leeds got there, played dirty and won, and Revie snubs Clough by not shaking his hand. From then on, everything Clough does is designed to show up Leeds United and Revie himself. They two have a very public war of words in the press.

To say that Clough is unprepared for the Leeds job would be an understatement. He assumes he’ll be able to waltz in, tell the team to stop playing dirty, and then the wins will simply take care of themselves. Taylor was always more of the nitty gritty detail man, while Clough was the visionary. What he walks into though is a team that doesn’t want him there, doesn’t listen to him, and does everything they can to undermine him. It is a recipe for disaster.

Michael Sheen delivers an excellent performance as Clough. Brass, loud, arrogant, with a Northern accent, Clough remains a fascinating character throughout, even if the film sometimes feels a little too by the numbers. Writer Peter Morgan (who also wrote The Queen and Frost/Nixon) and director Tom Hooper flash back and forth in time to show both Clough’s rise in the ranks of English football as manager of Darby, and his fall as manager of Leeds United. Through it all, they concentrate on the relationships in the film – particularly the marriage type aspect of the relationship between Clough and Taylor, and the rivalry between Clough and Revie. While it is a fascinating movie, at times it feels a little too clich├ęd. Also, I felt that there was a darker story lurking somewhere beneath the surface of this film, that they just didn’t want to delve into. I learned later of course that there was, but the story they tell is still quite interesting. I didn’t so much like the end title cards though, that celebrates Clough and Taylor, and deride Revie, but what are you going to do?

The Damned United is a well made and very entertaining movie – even for someone like me, who despises soccer. That it is as good as it is due to Sheen’s wonderful performance, and the fascinating character he plays. It doesn’t matter what sport he coaches, Brian Clough would be an entertaining, interesting person.

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