With sensible economic decisions being to the fore at the moment, actor Michael Sheen has got in on the act and offered us cineastes a two-for-one special offer.
As British cinema’s number one exponent of character studies, here he’s offering his second take on a major pop cultural icon, taking the role of eccentric and outspoken old school football manager Brian Clough, a fair follow-up to his vision of another 70s icon, chat-show host-cum-interrogator David Frost, as seen in Frost/Nixon.
Based on the lauded novel by David Peace, The Damned United fictionalises the brief and volatile period in 1974 when Clough took charge of league champions Leeds United, a culture clash of monstrous proportions, as he sought to straighten out a team of hardened cynical pros, whose success owed a great deal to a love of foul play that would make their modern Premier League counterparts soil themselves in fear.
Clough also had beef with their previous manager, Don Revie, a man for whom he had no kind words, only a wealth of bad ones. With his new charges fiercely loyal to Revie and clear in their hatred for Clough, Ol’ Big ‘Ead faces the job of his life to make a success of his new challenge.
Flitting between his torrid time at Leeds and the glory years and squabbles that led up to it, TDU captures the gloriously outspoken quote-machine as he stacks up trophies with his pal and assistant Peter Taylor (Tim Spall), while extravagantly shooting down anyone who fails to fall into line with his way of thinking.
While Peace’s novel pondered the dark thoughts that drove the man throughout the period, Hooper’s film feels a more historical recollection of events, and gives it more of a traditional British flick feel, a tale of a working class man battling the odds, reinforced by a cast of reliable, if predictably chosen, stalwarts like Spall and Broadbent.
Sheen has Clough off to a tee, both in mannerism and attitude. But the script fails to truly capture what made him and the Leeds debacle worthy of such a mythologising, aside from the man’s stream of soundbites. Curiously, while the book looks at his flawed genius, the film curiously weakens him, pumping-up the merits of both Revie and Taylor. Part of you wonders what the fuss is about.
Visually, TDU compensates for the flaws, boasting wonderful set design and beautifully rich photography that glows with the unnaturally saturated hues of old 70s photos. It feels spot-on as a period piece, helped by the disc’s extras, which lovingly look back at the people and era that spawned the film.
Oddly, TDU comes across not so much as a glimpse into the mind of a sporting legend and a curious phase of his career, but possibly the weirdest entry into the Bro-mance genre yet. At its core it’s a weird love triangle between three old duffers – Clough’s ultimately driven by his feelings towards Revie, while Taylor, the key man in his life, is taken for granted and abused, the fall-out resulting in much of the difficulties of those fateful 44 days Clough spent at Leeds.
The Damned United has lost much of the compelling sadness that undermines the novel and fails to make the story of Clough’s failure at Leeds into something that would have universal appeal. That said, the cast can’t be faulted, and the authentic look and feel mean it’s still solid viewing for anyone who has a soft spot for the big man.
Starring: Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, Colm Meany, Jim Broadbent.
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Extras: Commentary, deleted scenes, featurettes