Brit TV director Tom Hooper’s The Damned United is easily the most entertaining and interesting film opening in Asheville this week. And no, you don’t need to know anything about soccer—or football, as it’s called outside the U.S.—to enjoy or understand the movie. It might help to understand that the British take this game very seriously indeed, but that’s about all. The fact is that this very layered film based on the true story of Brian Clough and his 44 days as manager of the Leeds United football team, isn’t much about the game at all. Rather, it’s a fascinating character study of Clough, of what drove him, and of his relationship with his associate Peter Taylor. It’s a human interaction story, not a sports story.
The film marks yet another instance of Michael Sheen starring in a movie written by Peter Morgan—and I’m inclined to say it’s the best of the lot. Morgan’s script is sharper here than the ones for Stephen Frears’ The Queen (2006) and Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon (2008)—and much as I admire Stephen Frears’ work, I think Tom Hooper’s direction of The Damned United is much more interesting filmmaking. Much of this is undoubtedly the product of what a fascinating character Brian Clough is—and how both perplexing and understandable his behavior is. Sheen is here given one of those things that get labeled “the role of a lifetime,” and in return, he’s given what is on my short list for best performance by an actor this year.
The film is structured in a heavily layered fashion that freely skips around in time, allowing the film to juxtapose scenes that help to clarify much of what Clough does during the course of the linear story. Put simply, Clough is presented as a gifted, talented man, who is too quick to think he’s even more talented than he is, and who has an absolutely world-class ability to hold a grudge. These are the things that drive him, the things that bedevil him and, just possibly, the very things that also define his positive aspects. It’s this last that provides the film with its most surprising turn of events, but what that is, well, is best discovered by the viewer.
Put in linear terms, Clough—with the underrated (by Clough) help of Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall)—is the man who turns the bottom-of-the-heap Derby football team into major contenders. Much of what drives Clough to do this is grounded in his desire to get back at Don Revie, manager of the top-rated Leeds United team. Why? Because Revie slighted him one day by snubbing him at a match in 1966. The film is very shrewd in suggesting that Clough has never been able to move on from this moment. In fact, when we first see Clough in 1974—just as he’s about to take over Revie’s job managing Leeds United—he’s singing along with Tom Jones’ recording of “What’s New, Pussycat?,” a song that was popular in, yes, 1966.
First-time theatrical film director Hooper has a natural—and very pleasing—flair for eye-catching compositions and subtle uses of lighting and scene transitions. He can even manage to shoot truly ugly blocks of government housing in an appealing manner by focusing on the natural beauty of the striking cloudscapes that hover over them. His handling of the scene where Clough tries to gauge what’s going on during a game by listening to the crowd from the safety of the locker room is extraordinary, while his decision to end a scene where Clough tries patch things up with Taylor on a fade-out is one of those moments where you think, “Oh, yes, that’ s so right.”
Ultimately, however, it’s the combination of the story and the playing of Sheen and Spall that puts the film over. The two actors are a perfect match—a match that makes their odd-couple pairing seem perfectly right. Whenever the two are on the screen together, The Damned United soars, and their interplay affords the film an emotional resonance that all too many films seem to be aiming for this season, but not attaining. That’s cause for celebration right there. Rated R for language.