Sunday, March 29, 2009

THE DAMNED UNITED - hubris, nemesis, half-time oranges

Peter Morgan specialises in well-crafted but slightly obvious and simplistic screenplays that efficiently capture British cultural figures - Queen Elizabeth II, Tony Blair, Henry VIII, David Frost and now Brian Clough. Once again, Morgan turns in a solid script that takes David Peace's savage biography and creates a more even-handed treatment of "the greatest England football manager we never had". The resulting film is an entertaining and very well-acted biopic that works as a relationship drama whether or not you know or care about The Beautiful Game. (I don't: my family support Spurs, so maybe I'm just bitter.)

The key dynamic is between Brian Clough (Michael Sheen), a cocky, mouthy Northern twat but also a genius football manager, and his Assistant Manager, Scout and professional wife, Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall). Clough had the ambition; Taylor the better temper: together took a piss-poor club called Derby County from the bottom of the second division to the top of the first division in just two seasons. It all went wrong when Clough took Taylor for granted and took their jobs at Derby for granted too. Having bad-mouthed the directors in public one too many times, Clough and Taylor were effectively sacked. Worse still, while Taylor wanted to see through their commitment to third division nobodies Brighton and Hove, Clough wanted to knive Brighton in the back and take up the better offer of managing Leeds United.

I say "better offer" but it wasn't really. Clough had spent his professional life very publicly slagging off the Leeds players and their manager Don Revie (Colm Meaney). Leeds were the best club in the country, chock-full of Internationals, and that no doubt invoked Clough's jealousy. But he had a substantive reason to be pissed off too: why did such a talented club insist on playing such filthy football? So when Revie was bumped up to England manager and Leeds offered Clough Revie's old job he took it, even though it meant parting ways with Taylor. The Leeds players hated him. The fans hated him. Taylor hated him. Within 44 days he was sacked. (Although as we know, he had the last laugh. Today, Clough is remembered as the only British manager to win the European championship twice, while Revie fell into disrepute.)

The Clough-Revie relationship is up there with Mozart-Salieri for poisonous professional jealousy and sheer viciousness. And Michael Sheen and Colm Meaney are superb in these roles. Timothy Spall and Jim Broadbent are also strong as Taylor and Derby Chairman Sam Longsonn respectively. In general, the film does well to focus on the friendships and rivalries and to skip over matchplay, which, let's face it, has never been done well on film. I guess my only niggle is that feeling of samey-ness and polystyrene efficiency that all Peter Morgan scripts have. Did we really need another drunken midnight phonecall between antagonists?

But this is a small quibble. Clough is a brilliant character - witty, cocky, a real showman - and his story is entertaining. Non soccer-fans shouldn't be put off by his job title. The subject matter transcends the game.

THE DAMNED UNITED is on release in the UK. It opens in Australia on August 13th; in France on September 9th and in Sweden on September 11th.

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