Sheen scores in bracing Brit sports drama ‘The Damned United’
Michael Sheen turns in another beautifully calibrated performance as a real-life character from recent British history in The Damned United. After starring as newly-minted Prime Minister Tony Blair in The Queen, and wily media pro David Frost in Frost/Nixon, Sheen here rises to the challenge of playing someone a bit less posh, but no less celebrated—legendary soccer manager Brian Clough. Mostly unknown in America, Clough is as notorious in Britain for his ego, his gift of gab, and his provocative antics as for his skill in shepherding hopeless Third Division teams from the north of England into stunning and impossible championships.
Scripted by Peter Morgan (The Queen; Frost/Nixon), The Damned United is based on a novel by David Peace which imagines the inner workings of Clough’s mind during a critical period of his career in the late 1960s and early ’70s. How closely (or not) Peace’s work of fiction overlays the facts of Clough’s career shouldn’t matter to viewers caught up in Morgan’s bracing, near-epic drama of supreme hubris, profound vindication, and dazzling chutzpa.
Director Tom Hooper navigates the story’s fragmented time frame with skill and clarity. Dramatic highlights from Clough’s career play off against fascinating flashbacks that help to connect all the dots. In 1974, the most dominant team in British football, Leeds United, loses its leader when fabled manager Don Levie (Colm Meany) is picked to coach England’s World Cup team. The press, public, and players react with shock and awe when his replacement turns out to be Brian Clough (Sheen), Levie’s longtime rival, and stylistic opposite, both on and off the field.
Flashback to 1969, to another northern industrial town, Derby, whose lower-division football team is managed by Clough. No one could be more excited than Clough, when “real footballers” from Leeds arrive for a match. But when Leeds trounces Derby, and Levie snubs Clough, a magnificent grudge is born. Abetted by his best pal, assistant manager Peter Taylor (the great Timothy Spall), with his acute nose for ferreting out talent, and infuriating the parsimonious club chairman (Jim Broadbent) with ever more outrageous and expensive contracts, Clough teases, cajoles, and finesses (but never bullies; that’s not his style) his Derby team into champions who ultimately take on Leeds in their own division.
But Derby’s phoenix-like rise exacts its personal and professional toll on Clough, whose entertaining (and wonderfully telegenic) cockiness can also be his worst enemy. And as the film adroitly bounces back and forth along this crucial timeline in Clough’s career, it starts to become something very different from the typical feel-good sports movie the viewer might expect. The intractable Leeds players aren’t about to warm up to the former enemy who calls them “cheaters,” while the small revelations of what Clough gave up to get there are hardly inspirational. Nor is the movie much interested in the action on the field. (In one terrific sequence, Clough waits out a critical match in the clubhouse, too anxious to watch, as waves of shadows darken the windows every time the crowd outside leaps to its feet.)
Yet this witty and merrily profane film rackets along on the charismatic brio of Sheen’s Clough. Never simply arrogant for its own sake, his bold words are always backed up with solid results as he earns the
loyalty of his players and fans. Master of the acerbic wisecrack, he also raises cheerful provocation to an art form. (“It’s Brian Clough uber fucking alles,” he blithely tells a TV interviewer on the day he formally takes the reins in Leeds.) Outfitted with a flawless northern accent and an irresistibly sly demeanor, Sheen in marvelous fun to watch throughout. And TV footage of the real Clough at film’s end suggest what an incisive performance Sheen has given.
THE DAMNED UNITED ★★★1/2 (out of four) With Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, and Colm Meany. Written by Peer Morgan. From the novel by David Peace. Directed by Tom Hooper. A Sony Classics release. Rated R. 97 minutes. Opens Nov 6.
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