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Film Review: The Damned United

The Damned United (2009; Directed by Tom Hooper)

“I apologize unreservedly for being a twat.” So commences the solemn oath that Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) is made to swear by his longtime football management partner and (only?) friend, Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall). On his knees in a driveway in Brighton, the outspoken, self-aggrandizing Clough must be humbled in order to accept the infusion of humility that Taylor provides and that is integral to the success of their partnership. The Damned United might be the best film ever made about British football (not a very crowded field, admittedly), and it encompasses many of the pathologies that permeate the game in its land of origin: class concerns, corporatization, skills and aesthetics vs. toughness and ruthless success, and masculine competitiveness. But at its soul it’s a bromance of frank sincerity: when the sundered Clough and Taylor reconcile on that Brighton driveway, it’s with a near-romantic affection. One half-expects a cathartic liplock with a swelling, emotional manipulative score.

But I am beginning at the end. The Damned United begins in the middle, with flashbacks to preceding events intercut with those in the text’s present, 1974. Clough, a former England international turned abrasive but successful manager, has taken the head job at Leeds United, recently vacated by his self-conceived rival Don Revie (Colm Meaney), who has left to manage the English national team after a crashing World Cup qualification failure. Leeds was the premier outfit in English domestic football under the exacting Revie, snatching league titles and cups with a bruising, pragmatic style featuring lots of fouls, simulation, and even referee intimidation. Clough, with an ample assist from Taylor and his sublime talent-scouting abilities, is a big-mouthed upstart, leading second-tier provincial club Derby County into the top flight and then to the top division title even as he alienates his club’s dollar-sensitive, cigar-chomping chairman, Sam Longson (Jim Broadbent).

The flashbacks to his Derby County success are juxtaposed with his brief but disastrous tenure at Leeds United (without the moderating Taylor, decamped to Brighton & Hove Albion), which ended after a mere 44 days, a handful of losses, and a combined player and boardroom revolt against his authority. Director Tom Hooper and his team craft a compelling portrait of Northern England in the rootless 1970s, all geometrically-arranged row houses, muddy football pitches, wood-panelled offices, and sickly-lit hallways with peeling paint. In one striking sequence, Clough sweats out a league rematch with Leeds from his Derby County office, smoking, drinking, and pacing while the multitudes on the terrace leap up and vocalize as one for every goal, chance, or foul.

The Damned United leans hard on Michael Sheen as Clough, and it’s almost unfair how unerringly good he is. Sheen’s Clough is racked by insecurity and feelings of insignificance that feed into his egomania and silver-tongued arrogance, which he deploys more as a defence mechanism than as expression of his true desires. Sheen uses his self-satisfied jackal smile to suggest profound, disavowed self-doubt. His rapid rise with Derby County is psychologically diagnosed as being motivated by a slight by Revie, who did not shake his hand or even acknowledge him when Leeds visited Derby for a FA Cup tie. Clough is Salieri to Revie’s footballing Mozart (although Clough himself surpassed Revie’s club accomplishments later in the ’70s with Nottingham Forest, who won two straight European Cups to the zero for Revie’s Leeds).

But this Yorkshire Salieri has a closer confidant than a mere visiting priest in Spall’s conscientious Taylor, and The Damned United is unequivocal in its assertion that it’s their collaboration that made Derby County and Nottingham Forest great. Unlike Sheen as Clough and Meaney as Revie, the squat, earthy Spall does not much resemble the silver-maned Taylor at all, but he’s a fine choice to act as a human conscience to the blazing Clough. Sheen and Spall construct one of the great sports-movie bromances almost without our noticing until that deeply-felt conclusion. In doing so, they enshrine the intensely homosocial nature of English football as a brasher, more cutthroat proletarian echo of the aristocratic club-bound patriarchy that runs the United Kingdom in their time (and, without much variation, in our own).

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Categories: Film, Reviews, Sports
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