movie film review | chris tookey

Damned United

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  Damned United Review
Tookey's Rating
8 /10
Average Rating
7.38 /10
Michael Sheen , Timothy Spall , Jim Broadbent
Full Cast >

Directed by: Tom Hooper
Written by: Peter Morgan , based on the novel by David Peace

Released: 2009
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: UK
Length: 93

Damned good, nostalgic fun.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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The Damned United is a hugely entertaining biography of football manager Brian Clough (played by the mercurial Michael Sheen, pictured), and – despite objections from Clough’s family – there’s remarkably little for them to complain about.

It’s kind to Clough over a number of issues – it has nothing to say about his incessant boozing, or the constant rumours of him accepting “bungs”. And it’s remarkably effective in capturing the essence of a man whom most of us will recall with fondness.

He was certainly a “character”, and arguably the finest manager our national team never had. For anyone too young to remember the highly successful manager of Hartlepool, Derby County and Nottingham Forest, he combined the self-confidence of Jose Mourinho, the bluntness of Dennis Skinner, and the snideness of Lily Savage.

Among his most celebrated quotations, several have made it into Peter Morgan’s screenplay, notably “I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business, but I was in the top one.”

I was only sorry there was no room for such immortal Cloughisms as “They say Rome wasn’t built in a day, but I wasn’t on that particular job.”

Nor, sadly, is there room for Brian’s thoughts on David Beckham (“Beckham? His wife can’t sing, and his barber can’t cut hair.”) and Sven Goran Erickson’s surprise appointment as England manager, the job that Clough always wanted. “At last,” Clough drawled in ironic tribute, “England have a manager who speaks English better than the players.”

It’s a pity Clough isn’t still alive, to express his opinion of such modern aspects of the game as Cristiano Ronaldo’s hair gel and Ashley Cole’s night life.
It would be hard not to warm to a man who had little time for that curse of the modern game, football agents: “If a player had said to [Liverpool manager] Bill Shankly, ‘I’ve got to speak to my agent’, Bill would have hit him. And I would have held him while he hit him.”

The film is, despite flashbacks to his long rivalry with Leeds United and their dour, cynical manager Don Revie, focused on Clough’s most notorious failure: his 44 days as manager of Leeds. It is in many ways a black comedy, for if ever a man contributed to his own downfall it was Clough, going on Yorkshire television to denounce the Leeds players and then insulting them to their face a few hours later:

“As far as I’m concerned, you can throw all those medals you’ve won in the bin, because you won them all by cheating”.

Clough was about as tactless as it was possible to be. It’s small wonder that his new team turned against him, led by its captain Billy Bremner (Stephen Graham).

Bremner comes out of the movie worst – sullen, thuggish and a consummate cheat. One of the biggest laughs comes from a blatant dive Bremner performs to win a penalty at Derby, and one of the sharpest intakes of breath comes at Bremner’s malicious kidney punch on Kevin Keegan during the FA Charity Shield.

The Damned United is a feast of character acting and hilarious look-alikes. Academy awards are not given to casting directors. If they were, the hot favourite for next year’s Oscar would be Dan Hubbard.

It comes as no surprise that the talented Sheen can turn his hand – and voice – to Clough. But who would have predicted that the Irish actor Colm Meaney could be such a dead ringer for the unlovable but effective Leeds manager Don Revie?

The same attention to detail goes all the way through the cast. I especially admired Mark Bazeley’s impersonation of Austin Mitchell, Joe Dempsie’s tongue-tied Duncan McKenzie and Mark Cameron’s glowering man of few words Norman “Bite Yer Legs” Hunter.

Timothy Spall may not look much like Clough’s longterm ally Peter Taylor, but he does capture his warmth, and he’s wonderful at capturing the weariness of a man long used to coping with the more insufferable aspects of Clough, especially his rampant egomania.

The whole film is, in a way, a manly love story between two men who compensated for each other’s deficiencies. It forgivably ends their story on a high note, although later the two man fell out over the transfer of John Robertson to Notts Forest, which Taylor authorised without reference to Clough.

Jim Broadbent is also spot-on as Sam Longson, Clough’s long-suffering chairman at Derby County, apoplectic with fury whenever Clough goes against his wishes, and implacably wreaking his revenge – as well as ruining the prospects of his club - by sacking him.

Tom Hooper’s direction doesn’t go in for frills, but he does capture the relative poverty of football in the sixties and seventies, and he wisely allows his actors room to shine.

Sheen is terrific here – at least as good as he was as Tony Blair and David Frost. I only wish we could have seen more evidence of Clough’s off-the-cuff wit. My favourite comment of his came during a televised 1986 world cup game, when Mick Channon said “We’ve got to get bodies into the box – the French do it! The Italians do it!’ And Clough added “Even educated fleas do it.”

I also wish there could have been more evidence of why Clough was a great football manager. Most of his success appears to be down to Taylor’s shrewdness as a picker of players. There’s nothing much on Clough’s tactics, and precious little about his motivational skills.

The structure of the film means that Clough and Taylor’s triumphs at Nottingham Forest (winning back-to-back European cups, which not even Sir Alex Ferguson has achieved) are consigned to a few end captions. I would have been happy to sit through another half hour, in order to see their extraordinary comeback - and, indeed, Revie’s humiliating failure as England manager – given proper weight.

Still, this is a unique film, the best yet about English football. I enjoyed every one of its 93 minutes. I wish it could have been longer.

There are some British films which have no little prospect of overseas sales, no hope of appealing to devotees of Sex and the City, and less chance than an Andrew Motion poetry-reading of attracting hordes of texting teenagers over their first weekend, but are nonetheless great fun. There won’t be many more enjoyable, or heart-warming, comedies this year.

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