The Damned United

Dir: Tom Hooper

Rating: 3.0/5.0

Sony Pictures Classics

98 Minutes

Though Michael Sheen has given “star-making” turns in both The Queen and Frost/Nixon, as peacemaker Tony Blair and journalist David Frost respectively, sharing the screen with titans like Helen Mirren and Frank Langella overshadowed his contributions. Though Sheen did receive his share of praise about his work in those films, it is simply impossible to ignore Mirren as Queen Elizabeth and Langella as Richard Nixon. In The Damned United, once again written by Queen and Frost scribe Peter Morgan, Sheen plays a historical persona but this time the movie is more or less his to carry.

The Damned United chronicles the 44-day tenure of Brian Clough (Sheen) as manager of English football club Leeds United. Clough, popular for turning a second-rate Derby team into a contender, is a flashy maverick who has a history of clashing with club brass. But what really drives Clough is an unhealthy obsession with unseating the legend of Don Revie (Colm Meaney), the former manager of Leeds who left for a position with the English national team. As the screenplay alternates between Clough’s days with Derby and his disastrous stint with Leeds, we come to learn why he hates Revie so much and that without assistant manager Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), Clough is nothing more than a blow-hard in a suit.

Director Tom Hooper does an admirable job here with the twin shackles of biopic and sports film dogging his film. Clough is a fascinating, if not slightly shallow figure, but Hooper avoids the plodding “then this happened” framework that bogs down so many films about famous people. Then again, it is somewhat liberating for an American audience as Brian Clough is small potatoes compared to Nixon or the Queen. Call it personal bias, I am much more likely to enjoy a biopic about someone I know little about than a film about Ray Charles or Johnny Cash.

There are also no tense, dramatic sports matches to serve as a distraction. No, it’s Clough’s injurious contempt for Revie and bald ambition that propels the film. Hooper also does well with capturing the feel of ’70s England, mixing in archival footage of football crowds with depressingly gray shots of Derby and Leeds. Yet, there is something glib and not fully fleshed out about the film. The footballers on Leeds United are portrayed as nothing more than a gang of thugs who have nothing but contempt for anything but Don Revie and winning games. Clough’s ego swallows all the other performances including Spall’s nuanced turn as Taylor and Jim Broadbent as Derby’s blustery chairman, not at the fault of Sheen. In fact, if nothing else, The Damned United proves that Sheen is fully capable of carrying his own film.

by David Harris
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