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REVIEW: The Damned United

By Philip Martin

This article was published November 27, 2009 at 4:12 a.m.

— The Damned United is a movie about the kind of football we know as soccer, which may put a lot of you off. Just saying that may brand it as hopelessly esoteric and inaccessible to American audiences, but you ought to understand that it’s not really about football. Rather, it’s a story about 44 days in the life of a mercurial legend, a hard-drinking, profane football manager (coach) named Brian Clough.

The real-life Clough, who died in 2004, was one of the greatest English football managers ever - the equivalent of a Vince Lombardi or Bill Parcells. He was also outspoken and controversial, to the detriment of his career. He’s widely considered the greatest English manager never to head up the national team.

His brief stint as the manager of perennial powerhouse Leeds United in 1974 no doubt played a part in that dubious achievement. At the time Clough was an up-and-coming coach who had turned around the doormat Derby County team, building them into a challenger. When Leeds United manager Don Revie left to become manager of the national team, Clough was surprisingly named his successor.

Surprisingly because there was a history of animosity between Clough and Revie, and Clough had on several occasions accused Leeds of rough play and cheating. Leeds United fans frankly considered Clough an enemy, and indeed one of his first actions as the team’s manager was to inform the players that he considered all the titles they’d won fraudulently obtained.

Or at least that’s how the film has it. We should understand that Peter Morgan (The Queen) wrote the script from a novel by David Peace, which was told from Clough’s point of view, mostly through an interior monologue. The book itself was a conflation of verifiable fact, rumor and invention and wasn’t admired by Clough’s surviving family.

(That probably makes less difference to an American audience unfamiliar with Clough, his legend and the prevailing public image of Leeds United, but it seems worth mentioning.) What makes this film worth the attention of people who don’t care at all about football is yet another nuanced, subtle performance by Michael Sheen (The Queen, Frost/Nixon), who is utterly convincing as a vain and tactless careerist who is undone by neurotic hubris.

Director Tom Hooper (the TV miniseries John Adams) doesn’t make many concessions to moviegoers unfamiliar with its milieu, but that’s only a minor problem as the on-field component of the story is relatively small. This is nothing like a conventional sports bio-pic; it’s a character study of a difficult personality, a charming, enigmatic victim of self-sabotage.

The Damned United87Cast: Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, ColmMeaney Director: Tom Hooper Rating: R, for language Running time: 98 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 39 on 11/27/2009

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