'The Damned United' is One Damned Entertaining Movie

Sony Pictures Classics

City Pulse | October 5, 2009
In his portrayal of famed British soccer team manager Brian Clough, Michael Sheen (The Queen) solidifies his status as this generation's Laurence Olivier in Tom Hooper's enthralling adaptation of Peter Morgan's 2006 book The Damned Utd. Hooper works effortlessly with Morgan's unconventionally formatted screenplay that flips between eras to explore Brian Clough's dynamic personality that took him from managing teams in Hartlepool and Derby to a doomed six-week tenure managing the Leeds United reigning champions. The Leeds team was previously managed by Clough's sworn rival and enemy Don Revie (Colm Meaney). With his trusted and gifted assistant Peter Taylor (persuasively played by Timothy Spall) by his side, Clough attempts to transform soccer from a cheater's game to a fun sport played with integrity by real champions. You can smell the damp air in Hooper's stylistically authentic framing that benefits from a great ensemble team of filmmakers that includes cinematographer Ben Smithard, production designer Eve Stewart (Fifty Dead Men Walking) and costume designer Mike O'Neill. Even non-soccer fans will find themselves swept up in the drama of one man's bold attempt to reinvent an entire sport against a tidal wave of opposition. The Damned United is one damned entertaining movie.

With his slight overbite and pompadour hairstyle, Michael Sheen morphs into the physicality of a wildly ambitious, competitive, and sardonic former pro soccer player. When Clough pronounces his own name, with its throat-sticking syllables, to a room of power brokers you can hear the force of nature behind it. During a brief coaching exhibition, Sheen shows off some inarguable soccer skills with the ball that back up his thoughtfully enunciated words.

The sandwiched narrative opens with Clough arriving at Leeds in 1974 to take over coaching duties from his career rival Don Revie (Meaney), who is leaving to take over the England team. Flashback to Clough and his loyal talent scout partner Peter Taylor (Spall) elevating the bottom rung Derby County team to league champions with Clough's tough-minded sense of good sportsmanship. The movie really gets fun in the confrontational boardroom meetings between the belligerently irreverent yet honest Clough and the men that would call him an employee. It's here that we see the wheels turning in Clough's tenacious bid for surpassing Don Revie, and fully comprehend the immediacy of his super objective.

One particular scene jumps out as indicative of the film's detailed personal drama. Brian Clough is hoodwinked into going on a local broadcast television interview where Don Revie will sit opposite Clough to discuss their views and rivalry. Meaney and Sheen go at the scene like two men shearing a goat. The actors' variable pitches of dramatic clarity come to the fore in the heightened context of a story-within-a-story. But the relationship that puts the story into the realm of the sublime is between the egotistical Clough and prudent Taylor. A clash of career objectives drives a wedge between the successful business partners that must be repaired. Growth through humility is its own reward for two men who went on to win the League Championship once, and the European Cup twice.

(Sony Pictures Classic) Rated R. 97 mins. (A+) (Five Stars)
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