In the Golden Age of Hollywood, certain character actors spent their entire careers playing variations on the same basic type—the grumpy old codger, the funny sidekick, the fussy dowager. Michael Sheen—immensely talented though he may be—needs to be very careful about heading in that direction.
In this adaptation of David Peace’s fact-based novel, Sheen plays Brian Clough, who in 1974 took on the unenviable task of replacing legendary Don Revie (Colm Meaney) as manager of English soccer powerhouse Leeds United after Revie was named manager of the English national team. Clough has more than simple career advancement in mind when he takes the job, as in flashback, we see Clough’s early success as manager of the lowly Derby County team, and the personal grudge that fueled his career rise.
Director Tom Hooper (the HBO miniseries John Adams) does wonderfully unconventional things with what could have been a conventional underdog sports movie. The relative lack of on-field action may grate on soccer partisans or those familiar with the story, but it effectively emphasizes that the story is really about what happens on the sidelines.
But while Sheen is great in the early scenes establishing Clough’s abrasively self-confident manner, he ultimately falls back on playing another publicly slick, privately insecure real-life figure, much like his other Peter Morgan-scripted characters (as Tony Blair in The Queen and David Frost in Frost/Nixon). And once it becomes clear that the dramatic crux of the film will be the strained bro-mance between Clough and his top assistant, Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), The Damned United loses a lot of its spiky energy. What remains is fairly consistently engaging as a piece of filmmaking—if a bit too familiar as a piece of character-based drama.
THE DAMNED UNITED