Telling with a light, surefooted touch a legendary tale from British soccer history, “The Damned United” reps the latest collaboration in factual fiction between chameleon thesp Michael Sheen, screenwriter Peter Morgan and producer Andy Harries (“Frost/Nixon,” “The Queen”). This time, the subject isn’t politics but “the beautiful game,” with a bromance twist as the pic recounts the career highlights of ’70s-era team manager Brian Clough. Stylish feature debut by Tom Hooper should do well in Blighty, especially among males and upscale auds, but faces a harder B.O. fight in territories where Clough’s not known and Sheen’s not a draw.
Based on a somewhat bleaker novel by David Peace, the pic deploys complex but never confusing flashbacks to unfold a story that essentially spans eight years, from 1968-74. During this time, working-class-boy-made-good Clough (Sheen) goes from overseeing a miraculous rise up the league table for English soccer team Derby County to managing Derby’s archrival, Leeds United. At the time Clough takes over, Leeds is at the top of the tables, due to the stewardship of patriarchal manager Don Revie (Colm Meaney), who has left to take over England’s World Cup squad.
However, Clough has long harbored resentment toward Revie, and he alienates the Leeds players before he even starts, publically dissing his predecessor and criticizing them personally for their dirty tactics on the pitch. What’s more, Clough’s longtime collaborator, assistant manager Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), doesn’t come with him to Leeds.
Without Taylor’s wisdom and football savvy, Leeds quickly begins losing games. After just 44 days on the job, Clough is sacked.
Despite the ignominy, Clough’s memory (he died in 2004) is still cherished by sport fans for his flamboyance, honesty and flair, both as a talkshow personality and as a manager. In the U.K., even those barely interested in the game know he’s reckoned to be, as the pic’s closing subtitles proclaim, “the greatest manager England (the World Cup team) never had.”
There’s hardly more than five minutes of actual ball-kicking onscreen, and what’s there is mostly seamlessly stitched-in archival footage. Diehard fans may actually feel shortchanged by the strategy. But it makes for more accessible drama that emphasizes themes of friendship, rivalry, honor and loyalty by focusing on Clough’s relationship with Taylor and, to a lesser extent, Revie.
Like all Morgan’s work, the effect is slightly too didactic and redolent of legit-land’s theater of ethics, but done with brio.
Sheen’s typically scrupulous channeling of Clough gets the tics and mannerisms right, but also carves a moving portrait of a braggart suddenly out of his depth — not unlike his David Frost in “Frost/Nixon” and Tony Blair in “The Queen,” but on a more tragic trajectory. As Taylor, Spall matches him in skill, playing a quiet, principled man content to stand in Clough’s shadow until a cross word too far tears them apart.
At base, the pic is a chaste love story between these two men, who are often seen hugging, kissing and even, at one point, dancing with each other to the strains of “Love and Marriage.” Their relationship is sufficiently compelling that distaff auds shouldn’t feel bored by all the sports talk. (There’s not a single female character here who has more than 10 lines of dialogue.) Meaney, as Revie, and Jim Broadbent, as Derby County’s gruff chairman Sam Longson, lend fine support.
Pic was originally developed as a Stephen Frears-helmed project in the wake of “The Queen,” but helmer Hooper (who previously collaborated with producer Harries on the acclaimed TV drama “Longford”) brings a distinctive style of his own. It’s not just the flair he already displayed with docudrama in the magnificent HBO series “John Adams,” but also his striking penchant for off-kilter camera setups, which place characters, especially in moments of anxiety, in odd corners of the frame or hunkered down on the edge. Kudos are also due lenser Ben Smithard, whose visuals replicate the grainy, sun-deprived look of British film of the era.
Period styling throughout is on the money, from Eve Stewart’s understated but uncannily accurate production design to Mike O’Neill’s costumes. Only the somewhat unconvincing wigs hit a jarring note.