Thursday, November 5, 2009

Review: "The Damned United"

Mercifully, there is precious little soccer in "The Damned United." I know, I know: Fans of soccer -- excuse me, football -- get awfully defensive about how unpopular the sport is on this side of the pond.

I'm just telling you where I'm coming from: Someone who hates watching soccer and absolutely loved this soccer movie.

The film, directed by Tom Hooper, tells the saga of Brian Clough's ignominious 44-day tenure as the manager of the powerhouse team Leeds United back in 1974. Although he would go on to become one of the greatest managers the sport had ever seen, he completely muffed his time at Leeds because he was arrogant and alienated his star players.

Screenwriter Peter Morgan, who based the script on the book by David Peace, has been on quite a tear lately, penning "The Queen," "Frost/Nixon" and this film -- all starring actor Michael Sheen -- plus "The Last King of Scotland" and "The Other Boleyn Girl" to boot.

On the surface, the story appears to be about Clough's obsession with supplanting and surpassing Don Revie (Colm Meaney), the previous manager of Leeds, who employed brutal tactics to win at any cost. There's a great scene near the beginning where the Leeds owners berate Clough for giving a controversial television interview right before taking the team's reins, and he assures them that he will not rest until his name has blotted out Revie's.

But really, the heart of this movie is the relationship between Clough and his assistant manager, Peter Taylor, masterfully played by Timothy Spall. Taylor is the unassuming, mild-mannered yin to Clough's self-aggrandizing, pompous yang.

The story begins in 1974, with Clough arriving at Leeds, with Taylor conspicuously absent. Despite a decade of success together, their partnership has ended for reasons that won't be revealed for awhile.

The film then jumps back to 1968, when Clough and Taylor were running a basement-dweller team in Derby, and got a chance to play Revie's Leeds hooligans. The head of the local owners (Jim Broadbent) is ecstatic about the match-up with Leeds because of all the money it will generate. But Clough is mortified when his team is embarrassed on the field, and Revie appears to ignore him.

The timeline jumps back and forth between Clough's Leeds tenure and the intervening years, as his ego and ambition race further and further out of control, and his relationship with Taylor grows acrimonious.

Sheen's performance is a real standout. He shows every little scrap of Clough's narcissism and off-putting manner, and yet somehow makes the character likeable. Sheen portrays him as a well-meaning man who can't take his eyes off the prize, to the detriment of those around him, especially his sibling-like relationship with Taylor.

"The Damned United" wisely keeps the action off the field, where the really interesting byplay happens.

3.5 stars

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