Review: The Damned United

Clough looks out onto his charges.

Clough looks out onto his charges.

Soccer films have rarely fared well on the big screen.  Be they tales of rags-to-riches (Sean Bean vehicle When Saturday Comes) or given a WWII setting (Escape to Victory), something seems to be lost in translation when trying to show the beautiful game on film.  Even the faux-Hollywood gloss and carpet-bomb marketing campaign of the Goal! series couldn’t prevent it’s fate of straight-to-DVD hell.

The Damned United attempts to change this sorry state of affairs.  Directed by Tom Hooper and adapted by Peter Morgan from the 2006 source novel of the same name, written by David Peace, The Damned United tells the story of charismatic British manager Brian Clough’s notorious 44-day stint in charge of Leeds United Football Club during the 1974-75 league season.

To label The Damned United solely as a soccer film is unfair.  Switching between Clough’s fateful days at Leeds United and his early days in management at Derby County, it is more the character study of a highly colourful and motivated man, arguably the most famous man of his era in the UK, who just happened to ply his trade in the profession of soccer management.

And who else to call upon when you need a famous figure portraying than the UK’s own cinemaeleon (trademark pending) Michael Sheen?  As is to be expected of Sheen, once again he has truly encapsulated his subject.  Clough’s voice and mannerisms are up there for all UK fans to see, hear and joyfully remember (US fans will have to trust me on this!).  All this is cosmetic though, just bells and whistles, the deeper aspects of Sheen’s performance are what you will remember.  Brian Clough was as stubborn as they come, even in spite of himself, and Sheen perfectly portrays his arrogance, humour and self-doubt as he tries to forge his name in the annals of the game and win “the right way”.  As Clough takes on chairmen, players, the media and the spectre of his predecessor at Leeds, Don Revie (Colm Meaney), Sheen makes you feel every emotion and evokes reaction from the viewer.  Managing to carve a performance that isn’t just advanced mimicry, Sheen once again reminds us that he is one of the brightest British acting talents, and needs to be rewarded with a role that isn’t either another take on someone from real life (as capable as he is) or in the ever-dwindling Underworld series.

The film itself is a nostalgic chronicle of events.  The 70s setting provides the canvas for which the actors can spin it’s lessons in trying to achieve success against adversity and falls from grace.  Key to the film’s success are it’s scenes depicting the game itself.  Long considered to be the achilles’ heel of any soccer film, The Damned United has an advantage to begin with.  The game in the 70s was a much different animal to that of today, with players more likely to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes at half-time than be nursed by physiotherapists while chugging down isotonic drinks, and therefore is easier to re-enact.  However, it smartly sidesteps any potential banana skin by showing as little action as possible, only what is necessary to the narrative, and throwing in actual footage from the era for added authenticity.

The Damned United may carry the stigma of being a soccer film, but the universal themes and strong performances by Sheen and (amongst others) Harry Potter-alumni Timothy Spall and Jim Broadbent as Clough’s right-hand man Peter Taylor and Derby County chairman Sam Longson respectively, will win over even the most ardent critic.

the damned united

Score: 8/10

Rating: R

Released: 27 March 2009

Running time: 97 mins

Cast: Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, Jim Broadbent, Colm Meaney, Elizabeth Carling.