by HELEN GEIB
2009 saw a raft of great male lead performances. One of them was by Michael Sheen as charismatic, controversial, and colorful ’70s English football coach Brian Clough in The Damned United. The movie and the performance went mostly unnoticed, at least in the U.S. where the film had a limited release on the arthouse circuit, but with luck will find their audience on DVD.
The springboard for the plot is Clough’s disastrous tenure as manager of Leeds United, “the damned United” of the title. The players resented him, he couldn’t win a game so the fans hated him, and the owners fired him after only six weeks on the job. Short segments showing Clough’s downward spiral from euphoria to mortification as United’s manager are interspersed with flashbacks to the story that receives the greater part of the filmmakers’ attention, Clough’s prior success as manager of rival team Derby County. To over-simplify, he brought Derby County from the bottom of the barrel to division champion over traditional powerhouses that included Leeds United.
Clough’s bitter-comical, one-sided rivalry with Don Revie (Colm Meaney), United’s predecessor manager is one unifying narrative strand. Another is Clough’s symbiotic relationship with Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), his assistant manager before, during, and after Derby County- but significantly not at Leeds United.
Despite what one might expect from the subject matter, The Damned United is not a movie that was made for devotees of English football. It and the book by David Peace that it’s based on have come under fire for taking factual liberties. Plus it really doesn’t care about football as a game. Director Tom Hooper seldom points the camera at the playing field, and when he does it’s to serve the interests of character development, not to provide footballer fan service.
What it is is a very entertaining character study of a man who was a real character. Clough has many attractive qualities. He’s driven to succeed, charismatic, he can be very funny, he’s exceptionally good at his job and insists on clean play on the field. But the film doesn’t shy away from the less appealing side to his personality, or the way that his personality contributed to his failure with United: the ego, the unmeasured ambition, the heedlessness towards other people.
Sheen is insanely dynamic. His performance is nicely balanced by Spall’s lower-key supporting performance as Taylor, Clough’s counterweight behind the scenes in the manager’s office. The quite different but complementary performances effectively parallel the professional partnership and private friendship at the film’s heart.
The Damned United is available on DVD and Blu-ray. Special features are a commentary with Hooper, Sheen, and producer Andy Harries and some short features: “Cloughisms;” “Perfect Pitch: The Making of Damned United;” “Creating Clough: Michael Sheen Takes on ‘Old Big ‘Ead’;” and “The Changing Game: Football in the Seventies.”
Other new releases this week: The Box, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, Everybody’s Fine, The Informant, The September Issue, Sorority Row