Movie Review: The Damned United (2009)

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Timothy Spall and Michael Sheen in The Damned United
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

After seeing the trailer I thought The Damned United looked like the British version of some crappy American sports drama. How wrong I was. After making known my initial read of the film to others that had seen it I was set straight and urged to give it a shot, and I’m glad I did. This hardly qualifies as a sports movie as much as it is a personal drama about a cocky man whose ego got the best of him and Michael Sheen and Timothy Spall turn in excellent performances along the way.

Spanning approximately ten years from the 1960s to mid-1970s, The Damned United focuses its attention on Brian Clough (Sheen) as he settles in to manage the reigning champions of English football Leeds United. He is stepping into the shoes of Don Revie (Colm Meaney), a longtime rival based solely on a handshake snubbing and he’s determined to best Revie’s championship accomplishments.

The story bounces back and forth between Clough’s time with Leeds United and his earlier days with his assistant coach Peter Taylor (Spall) coaching Derby from the cellar to the top of the ranks. However, along the way Clough’s mouth gets him into a fair amount of trouble causing for plenty of drama and comedic wit throughout the picture.

It’s no surprise this script was written by Peter Morgan, adapted from David Peace’s non-fiction novel, as it carries much of the same snappy dialogue and character moments we’re accustomed to from other Morgan efforts such as The Queen. And I guess we shouldn’t be surprised Sheen was picked for the lead role as he has been successfully delivering Morgan’s lines since 2003’s “The Deal” along with The Queen and last year’s Frost/Nixon. In fact, I would say Sheen’s portrayal of Clough is close to being another David Frost, although along with the drive to succeed there is also a sly smile and a nagging ego bubbling up to shut him down.

Along with Sheen this film is blessed with a terrific supporting performance by Timothy Spall playing Clough’s right-hand man and behind-the-scenes head master Peter Taylor. Spall has always performed at a high caliber, but is rarely given a more compassionate role as he is in The Damned United. Most often we see him playing characters such as Beadle in Sweeney Todd or Wormtail in the Harry Potter franchise, neither of which even sound remotely appealing. Here he is a family man and a solid citizen and you instantly connect with his situation.

Directed by Tom Hooper, The Damned United is a top notch film that manages to be a sports film without relying on showing the action on the pitch. Instead it’s dedicated to telling the story of the people involved. It doesn’t get caught up in trying to raise your adrenaline level with bicycle kicks and fancy footwork. It’s a quality script played out by quality talent.

To my opening concern — that this film would be a British version of a generic American sports movie — I guess I should never doubt the folks from across the pond. It seems they have figured out a sports movie doesn’t always have to be smiling faces and touchdown dances. Taking the human approach to a sports film allowed for a far more approachable story and one that doesn’t necessarily end up entirely happy.

GRADE: B+