Eugene Weekly : Movies : 12.10.09


Love and Marriage
The dynamic duo of English football
by Jason Blair

THE DAMNED UNITED: Directed by Tom Hooper. Written by Peter Morgan, based upon the novel by David Pearce. Cinematography, Ben Smithard. Music, Rob Lane. Starring Michael Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Colm Meaney and Timothy Spall. Sony Pictures Classics, 2009. R. 97 minutes.

Michael Sheen in The Damned United

The Damned United is a film about a notable partnership, one that within sports circles is best remembered for a tragic fall. The film is the story of Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) and his longtime assistant Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), two coaches who gained a reputation in the 1970s as the dynamic duo of English soccer. Peter was the calm pragmatist and quiet visionary, the clever strategist and able advisor, while Brian was the motivator, the passionate speech-giver and brash personality given to highly inappropriate — and highly quotable — outbursts. While Peter and Brian might not be remembered as warmly as the Wright Brothers or even Ben and Jerry, their symbiotic relationship was one of tremendous balance, an alignment of brains and brash reminiscent of Karl Rove/George Bush and Steve Wozniak/Steve Jobs. In The Damned United, Brian is the “shop window,” says Peter, while Peter is the “goods in the back.”

The film moves easily between two periods, from Brian and Peter’s humble beginnings at the bottom of the second division to Brian’s eventual promotion to the manager of Leeds United, an elite and beloved first division club. In the earlier era, while coaching at Derby County, Brian is snubbed prior to a match by Don Revie (Colm Meaney), the legendary Leeds United manager. When Revie takes over the national team, the Leeds ownership approaches Brian, who accepts the position of his former nemesis without the support of Peter. The two storylines eventually merge in the middle, by which time The Damned United is greater than the sum of its parts: It’s a sports drama with a mild vendetta theme as well as a film about how certain friendships reveal your gifts as well as limitations. If the early period in The Damned United serves as the backstory for Brian’s attempt to outdo Revie — namely, by winning a European Cup championship — Brian will learn in the latter period what life without Peter is like. It turns out that theirs was a match more perfect than Brian ever realized. 

Short, crisp and largely fictionalized, the film is the latest collaboration between Welsh actor Sheen and screenwriter Peter Morgan, who, after The Queen and Frost/Nixon, continue their winning streak with The Damned United. We’ve come to expect great things from Morgan, whose screenplay for United absolutely crackles in the person of Brian Clough. Sneering and sophisticated, vain and childlike, Sheen’s Clough is a top-notch performance that should be recognized at year’s end. Director Tom Hooper, in only his second feature film, makes a huge impression as well, using soccer as backdrop for serious drama and not, fortunately, vice versa. Hooper and cinematographer Ben Smithard incorporate archival footage beautifully, including footage of Mohammed Ali calling out Clough on national television. (Both were legendary squawkers.) If the film’s dialects are bit hard to tease apart at times, the lines themselves absolutely pop, such as when Peter refers to the center line of their squad as the “skewer in the shish kabob,” which, when you think about it, is a memoable way of saying backbone. With a great production and terrific performances, The Damned United is, to quote Peter, the “real razzle dazzle.”   

The Damned United opens Friday, Dec. 11, at the Bijou.