Every so often a movie comes along that both envelops and transcends its genre. On the surface, “The Damned United” is about an exceptionally talented soccer manager, Brian Clough, who took an unlikely team of players to unparalleled heights, culminating in back-to-back European Cup championships.
More important, however, is the movie’s handling of a fractured friendship between the fiery manager and his colleague and best friend, the assistant coach, played handsomely by Timothy Spall. Clough, the manager and the film’s leading man, is portrayed by Michael Sheen, who was more than impressive in his depictions of Tony Blair in “The Queen” and David Frost in “Frost/Nixon.”
‘The Damned United’
DIRECTED BY: Tom Hooper
STARRING: Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, Jim Broadbent, Colm Meaney, Maurice Roeves, Stephen Graham
RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes
If “The Damned United” were merely a docudrama, it would likely generate scant interest for American audiences, even if we know going in that Clough was a legend in his own time — a Hotspur, Billy Martin and Vince Lombardi rolled into one fiery ball of unbridled energy.
The searing drama amasses its considerable force the old-fashioned way; it earns its wings by virtue of impeccable performances, strong direction and a stellar screenplay.
Consider the pedigrees. Tom Hooper (“Elizabeth 1” and “John Adams”) directed, while the screenplay features the work of Peter Morgan, who crafted “The Last King of Scotland,” as well as the aforementioned “The Queen” and “Frost/Nixon.”
Let’s face it: Because they are classically trained actors who worked their way up in theater, the Brits usually outshine Americans in dramatic productions. They have the chops, the stamina, the versatility enabling them to create a wide range of credible characters.
It’s not only Sheen who excels here, but consider the work of Colm Meaney as Don Revie, the Lombardi-esque predecesscor at Leeds United who treats Clough with muted scorn. Then there’s the team’s irascible owner, played by the great character actor Jim Broadbent.
In time, Clough will outshine Revie, but that is not what “The Damned United” is about. Instead of taking the path trod by shallower American works such as “Rudy,” this drama covers, via flashbacks, the shaky tenure of an aspiring coach who needs a lesson in humility before he ascends to greatness.
One of the final scenes with Sheen and Spall will break your heart.
Reach film critic Dan DiNicola at [email protected]