The Damned United
- Directed by Tom Hooper
- Written by Peter Morgan
- Starring Michael Sheen and Timothy Spall
- Classification: 14A
Like a skill player who just can't score, The Damned United is all dazzle and no finish and, ultimately, damned frustrating. Every sports movie aspires to be about more than sport, wanting to escape the playpen of the game, but this one gets caught up in its own footwork, rushing to and fro in a confused search for a thematic identity. Is it a cautionary tale of obsession and revenge? Is it a portrait of the artist as a young manager? Is it an odd couple romance? Answer: Each of the above sporadically but none either consistently or convincingly.
That's a pity, because so much else here, from the performances to the period detail, is spot-on. The game in question is English football (soccer to us) and, standing at the centre of the pitch, our flawed hero is the real-life Brian Clough (Michael Sheen). In 1974, Clough took over as the manager of Leeds United, a powerhouse franchise in the league's First Division. Five losses in six games later, the wunderkind got the boot, ignominiously fired after a mere 44 days on the job. Doubtless, rabid fans and sport historians will know the incident well, yet the film's obvious challenge is to address the question posed by everyone else: "Too bad, so sad, but why should we care?"
The source material, David Pearce's controversial book, responded by diving into Clough's troubled mind and unfolding as an intriguingly dark interior monologue. Faced with the problem of how to open up that monologue, writer Peter Morgan ( The Queen , Frost/Nixon ) succeeds in getting outside the guy's head but, in the process, airbrushes away much of his darkness. Big mistake. Although this lighter/brighter Clough may be a better man, he makes for a poorer story. Gone is the obsessive, paranoid quality of the tale, as the fellow's essentially high spirits rob him of an Achilles heel - there's nothing tragic about a cheerfully fallen hero.
So the picture turns to his artistic side, beginning with his assertion that "Football is a beautiful game; it needs to be played beautifully." To that end, the script keeps flashing back to his triumphs in the late sixties, leading once-inferior teams up through the divisional ranks. In hockey terms, he's the anti-Brian Burke, eschewing "truculence and belligerence" for skill and artistry. His archrival, and the man he would succeed at Leeds, is Don Revie (Colm Meaney), whose philosophic approach borrows from the Don Cherry playbook of tackling viciously, fighting often and winning ugly. Here, the film becomes a culture clash, a battle of particular strategies - interesting to cognoscenti, perhaps, but lacking in any broader resonance.
That leaves the odd-couple romance. A bromance, actually, between the ever loquacious Clough and his silent partner Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall). We're led to believe that, before the relationship soured, Taylor was the brains behind Clough's ascendancy, the savant who advised on player personnel and field tactics. Or, as he puts it in an uncharacteristic burst of metaphor: "You're the shop window and I'm the goods at the back." Their ruptured love affair is meant to lie at the emotional heart of the piece, but it tends to get lost among the other skirmishes. When it's found again in the late going, when the window makes a pilgrimage to revisit the goods, we'd like to care but can't - the pane is too transparent.
Don't blame the supporting cast members, who are uniformly strong. And director Tom Hooper richly captures the period detail, adding observant little touches like the pre-game perks for the players of that era: Lined up neatly at every locker-room stall is a clean towel, a healthy orange and a fresh ashtray. Sheen, of course, is a veteran of Morgan's fictionalized flirtations with factual characters. Having already played Tony Blair and David Frost, he positions Clough somewhere between the two - different accent but a similar brashness, and the same smug smile hiding a latent vulnerability.
This time, though, Morgan's screenplay lets him down. Sheen is on screen almost continually, yet is obliged to work under a bright spotlight that deprives him of what a dramatic actor most needs - dark and defining shadows. Better for him, and us, if he were more damned and less united.