The Damned United (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

duthumb.jpgDirector Tom Hooper moves assuredly backwards and forwards in time while keeping his eye firmly on the human story.

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To really get into The Damned United it helps adopt a British point of view. You needn’t be an expert on the details of the events portrayed, but the surface story is about football (a.k.a. soccer in the U.S.). So, if you don’t understand the importance of that game in the U.K. (hint: the failure of the national team to qualify for the 1974 World Cup was viewed as an unmitigated calamity) you may find yourself wondering what all the fuss is about.

On the other hand, the real story isn’t about football, but about the competing agendas of two strong-willed individuals—one apparently playing the supporting role to the other’s lead—and how it all shakes out in the end. This is a favorite theme in films scripted by Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Last King of Scotland, Frost/Nixon).  In this case, from a novel by David Peace, the battling pair are football manager Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) and his assistant Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall). There’s so much going on in The Damned United that it would be a shame to classify it as a sports movie: instead it’s a human drama set within the world of English professional football in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

We first meet Clough managing the woeful Derby County squad in the late 1960’s. Unwilling to settle for the bottom end of England’s Second Division, Clough battles with the squad’s unambitious management and aggressively signs new players, leading the team to the Division Two championship in his second year as manager. A few more years and they’re at the top of Division One.

However, this rapid rise to the top also puts the unlovely aspects of Clough’s personality on full display. These include apparently unbounded ambition, conceit (“I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the country, but I’m in the top one”), a tendency to take everything personally, and a willingness to sacrifice anyone and anything in his mad pursuit of success. Taylor is content to remain in the background although his excellence as a strategist and are vital to Derby’s success, as is his calm personality which provides the necessary counterbalance to Clough’s flamboyance.

Leeds United was the dominant power of British soccer in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, and when manager Don Revie (Colm Meaney) resigns to manage the national team, Clough replaces him despite being under contract to Brighton & Hove Albion. Clough is not the best fit for the club (he’s openly criticized their physical style of play in the past) but wants it because it’s the biggest prize to be had. He’s also settling a score which exists largely in his own mind: he believes Revie refused to shake his hand after a Derby-Leeds match some years previous and ever since has been obsessed with the idea of showing up both Leeds and its coach.

Taylor remains in Brighton after a nasty breakup in which he accurately describes their roles: Clough may be the fancy display in the shop window but Taylor is the real goods in the back. Clough unchecked, quickly goes into full self-destructive mode: you can almost see Cody Jarrett atop the gas storage tank shouting “Top of the world, Ma!” before going up in flames.

Central to the film’s success is the performance of Michael Sheen who continues to astonish with his ability to disappear into a role. Meaney and Spall are equally good, and the smaller roles are also well covered; including Jim Broadbent as Derby’s owner and Stephen Graham and Johnny Giles as leaders of the Leeds mutiny.

Director Tom Hooper moves assuredly backwards and forwards in time while keeping his eye firmly on the human story, and cinematographer Ben Smithard captures both the physicality of the game and the hardscrabble nature of life for many British people in the period: only a few years later its dysfunctional economy would win Britain the label “sick man of Europe.” | Sarah Boslaugh

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