Retropsective: The Damned United (2009)

Harry Riedl is a film enthusiast from West London and this continues a series of reviews on his favourite cult classics.
When looking at movies about sport, it is always interesting to gage the perspective of those who do not follow to sport so avidly. One of the best examples of this is The Dammed United, which combines an interesting human drama around one of the greatest ever managers in English football, Brian Clough. He makes a  fascinating character due to his great rivalry with Don Revie who had a very similar upbringing to Clough but contained a very different character. Clough was very outgoing and outspoken, while Revie was the opposite, wishing to create his team ‘into a family’. This was one of the great rivalries in English football. The late 60s into the mid-70s was a time of political upheaval and coupled with violent, aggressive football, these combinations make this a very powerful movie even if you are not necessarily a football fan.

The Damned United is directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) and is part of a long-standing collaboration between writer Peter Morgan and actor Michael Sheen, who plays Brian Clough. Sheen is known for his impressive chameleon-like ability to take on the mannerism, actions and accents of some of the best known figures of the past such as David Frost and Tony Blair. What’s impressive is he does this without looking too much like the character. He takes on the mannerisms of Clough so well with his twitches, aggression and his endless self-confidence.

The film focuses on Clough’s difficult days as Leeds manager, a club he had previously been highly critical of and had been managed by his rival, Revie. One of the most important features of the movie was Clough’s relationship with his assistant manager, Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall) who doesn’t follow him to Leeds. Taylor acts as his yin to Clough’s yang and is far more tactful and less flamboyant but is just as important in the management of their teams. Jim Broadbent creates an equally fantastic character of an exasperated chairmen and this whole footballing world feels remarkable lifelike.

Match of the Day scores and interviews with Clough are used really well to mix between fiction and reality, The movie’s representation both on and the off pitch feels very true to the 1970s, such as listening to the scores in candle light due to the 3 day week and the violence both on and off the pitch which created such a terrible reputation for English football. It’s a nice period piece and the type of movie which the British film industry are very good at (similar movies would be Made in Dagenham and The Kings Speech). It’s fundamentally a social history movie which still plays out as an interesting movie in its own right.

One of the problems is that the movie doesn’t quite explain why Clough chose to work at Leeds in the first place, which was ultimately catastrophic and bound to fail. Working inside the lair of a nemesis with such a different and hostile environment was never going to be straight forward. He had moved from working at small clubs going places to be going to a huge club with a thuggish reputation even for the period. It remains one of the great mysteries: why? What the movie shows is the ‘how’. It shows how it feels when everyone hates you in the visceral way that only football can really express. It creates a great atmosphere of what it feels like to be loathed by tens of thousands of people and the sense of absolute isolation. As with all movies like this, a certain amount of reality was changed to make it into a better film. But most importantly, football and human relationships remain central, such as the link between Clough and Taylor, the closeness the manager has with his team and the bitterness of rivalry and thwarted ambition.

In the end, neither manager fulfil their ambition. Clough never became England manager and Revie failed miserably with England. This movie opens up this great rivalry to those who aren’t so interested in the game with the great versatility of Sheen along with the great and the good of British actors. The product is a very interesting period piece which holds to my opening statement it can even interest those with no interest in the sport.


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