This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com
I propose a thought experiment. Think of all of the football-based films you’ve seen. Now think how many of those were any good whatsoever. I’m willing to wager that the number you are thinking of is either zero or a number very close to it. I had hoped that The Damned United would help that sorry statistic, but sadly it does not. Not, you understand, because it’s not good. It’s excellent. However, it’s really only very barely about football.
Which might be a slightly unusual thing to say about a film that’s a dramatised biopic of opinionated football manager Brian Clough (played here by Michael Sheen), but the critical thing here is that it’s about Brian Clough, and not, in any particularly meaningful way, the football played by the teams he manages. After taking the unknowns of Derby County and moulding them into force to be reckoned with, charging up the leagues into the top flight and becoming champions in their first season there, unseating the then-dominant Leeds United.
Leeds United being, as you might expect, the damnable team of the title. Clough had built up an intense rivalry that borders on irrational hated with the then Leeds manager Don Revie (Colm Meany) based on a perceived slight back when a then minnow Derby played Leeds in the cup. Using this as fuel to his fire, he puts together a fine team aided by his managerial partner Peter Taylor (Tim Spall). As part of this he makes less than complimentary comments about Leeds’ somewhat (read: massively) dirty playing style, which becomes something of an issue when he’s hired to take over from Revie after Revie takes the job of England manager.
Faced with a team who hate him and without the vital support of Taylor, things do not go well for the young manager, prompting a re-examination of his own character, resolve and personal foibles that have lead to such strain and fall-outs with Revie, Taylor and the Leeds team. It’s this character driven drama that constitutes the heart of the film, rather than anything going on on the field.
By this point you have perhaps become accustomed to a stereotypical formula for how sports films work out, with a new player or team overcoming personal problems and / or promoting cohesion in a previously fractured team and more often than not learning that as a team, were stronger, better people than as individuals. The Damned United, if nothing else, represents a refreshing alternative to this filled with politics, backstabbing, broken promises and shattered dreams. Very British.
There is little point in labouring the, er, point that this is a superb film that everyone should go and see regardless of their thoughts on football. Michael Sheen, appearances in the risible Underworld franchise notwithstanding, is perhaps the best character actor working in Britain today and the supporting cast are just as fantastic. It’s the most interesting timeframe of a most interesting character, and you’d better have a damned good reason not to see this.