The Damned United

Starring Michael Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Colm Meaney, Timothy Spall. Directed by Tom Hooper.
Rated M (coarse language). 98 mins.

No problems for English audiences as long as they have a good knowledge of football and football history (which they tend to).  A first problem for a non-English audience is wondering who is the United team, anyway.  In recent history, it has been Manchester United which has been at the top. But this damned United is not Manchester.  So, for the non-initiated, it is Leeds United who were the champions in the late 1960s, early 1970s.

With the identity problem out of the way, we next face the problem of Brian Clough.  Once again the English know who the subject of the film is (the way that Americans know instantly the baseball champions whose lives are transferred to the screen when the rest of the world is none the wiser).  Well, after watching The Damned United (and it is certainly a film that many will find worth watching), we know who Brian Clough was – and are fascinated that a man you probably would not particularly want to meet had such an impact on the game.

So, this is what the film is: a portrait of Brian Clough.

Since he is played by Michael Sheen, that in itself is a recommendation these days.  In recent years, Sheen has excelled as Tony Blair (The Deal, The Queen), as David Frost (Frost/Nixon), as Kenneth Williams (Fantabulosa) – and as Lucian the head of the Lycans in the Underworld series!  Once again, Sheen creates a distinctive personality.  And, once again, he is speaking lines written by Peter Morgan (The Deal, The Queen, Longford, The Other Boleyn Girl, Frost/Nixon).  This is quite a powerful combination.

Based on a novel by David Peace (The Red Riding books),  Morgan illustrates Clough's character by showing him taking over as manager of Leeds United after years of envy of them and their coach Don Revie (Colm Meaney excellent in the role) who has been appointed England manager.  The screenplay keeps going back to the late 60s with Clough's amazing achievement of bringing Derby Country from the third division to the first.  He works with assistant Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall also excellent) who has a talent for recognising good players.  Clough goes over the head of the chairman of the Club (Jim Broadbent in another excellent performance) in recruiting players.

But Clough has a huge ego, has a loud mouth, is consumed by ambition to beat Revie who had ignored him at a match.  He antagonises the Derby Board, clashes with Peter Taylor and, on arrival at Leeds, finds no co-operation with the players who are still loyal to Revie.

There is enough drama here to interest non-footballers as well as the fans.  The performances are worth seeing and the downfall (all his own fault) of a man with talent and potential makes one reflect.

Sony Out November 26 (WA), December 3 (NSW), Oher states (various)

Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.