The Damned United -- Film Review

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Prolific English screenwriter Peter Morgan clearly is attracted to duels between historical figures. "The Damned United" is no exception. However, here the personalities are less familiar to North American audiences because they dwell within the storied ranks of English football. And the stakes feel ... well, rather unimportant. Guess you have to really care about Leeds United.

"United" did only so-so business in the U.K. in the spring. Sony Pictures Classics launches a domestic platform release Oct. 9 in Los Angeles and New York. Although one can know little about soccer but appreciate the clash of personalities described in "United," the larger question is whether this conflict will galvanize interest from adult moviegoers.

The dramatic impulse behind most of Morgan's scripts is to highlight personal conflicts between public figures that often expose the arrogance of power and cravings for recognition and approval by the lonely people who hold such power.

Michael Sheen, Morgan's continuing alter ego, who after Tony Blair ("The Deal," "The Queen") and David Frost ("Frost/Nixon") now plays the mercurial, outspoken English football striker-turned-celebrated manager Brian Clough (1935-2004). The focus, oddly, is on his one great failure -- the 44 days he lasted as a manager of reigning football champs, Leeds United, in 1974.

Morgan's screenplay, based on a 2006 fact-based novel by David Peace, imagines an epiphany of sorts took place with this failure. The humiliation brings to a climax Brian's relationship with two men, his own trusty lieutenant, Peter Taylor (acting dynamo Timothy Spall), and bitter antagonist Don Revie (a scowling Colm Meaney), the previous Leeds manager.

These are love-hate relationships, love for Peter but an antipathy bordering on obsession against Don. As Brian and Peter struggle and succeed in bringing two unheralded football clubs into prominence in the '60s and '70s, Brian develops a hearty dislike of the winning Leeds United manager, based on a slight that might have been real or imagined.

A hot-head and egomaniacal manager himself, Brian tends to alienate those around him, including one he very much should not, the choleric chairman of his champion Derby County team, Sam Longson (Jim Broadbent). But Peter sticks with him. Indeed, the film portrays them in a "bromance," to use the current term. One scene even has the two engage in a furtive telephone conversation while their wives glower from dining tables in the distance.

So blind is his hatred for Don Revie that when Don resigns from Leeds to take over England's national team, Brian jumps at the chance to replace and upstage his rival, leaving Peter with a lesser club. But Brian Clough and Leeds United are a mismatch made in hell.

Not only does Brian disapprove of the aggressive -- some would say dirty and intimidating -- play of Leeds, he alienates senior members of that team so that, as the film portrays it at least, the veterans refuse to play their best for the new coach.
Lessons learned, according to Morgan: Brian needs Peter, and his obsession with Don leads only to heartache and humiliation. But is it really all that simple?

Alcoholism rather than Don Revie was Brian's real antagonist. Brian and Peter later became estranged again, a breach never mended before Peter's death. And a loss on the Continent the movie attributes to Brian foolishly playing his best side against Leeds instead of saving them for the championship in reality had more to do with a referee who accepted "gifts" from the victors.

So this is historical fiction that continues Morgan's intriguing inquiry into the uses and abuses of power and how personalities get distorted by a taste of fame or success.

Director Tom Hooper ("John Adams") ably balances the games (surprisingly little football footage, actually), the personalities and the drama. Sheen, his Northern England accent sharp and his motor-mouth set on self-destruct, steers Brian toward the sociopathic. Spall is as buoyant as ever, but he comes across more as a cheerleader than a savvy strategist. Meaney is kept in the background so one can't determine whether he deserved Brian's enmity or not.

Cinematographer Ben Smithard and production designer Eva Stewart match archival footage with the gritty, eye-sore colors and lackluster design of much of '70s era. And as the archival footage toward the end makes clear, many of these actors are dead ringers for their historical counterparts.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Opens: Friday, Oct. 9 (Sony Pictures Classics)
Production: Columbia Pictures and BBC Films in association with Left Bank Pictures and Screen Yorkshire
Cast: Michael Sheen, Colm Meaney, Timothy Spall, Jim Broadbent, Stephen Graham, Peter McDonald
Director: Tom Hooper
Screenwriter: Peter Morgan
Based on the novel by: David Peace
Producer: Andy Harries
Executive producers: Christine Langan, Hugo Heppell, Peter Morgan
Director of photography: Ben Smithard
Production designer: Eva Stewart
Music: Robert Lane
Costume designer: Mike O'Neill
Editor: Melanie Oliver
No rating, 98 minutes
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