Tom Hooper just won Best Director and Best Picture for “The King’s Speech” at the Oscars. The expansive cinematography in that film revealed the gravity of King George VI’s every word. In “The Damned United,” which he made in 2009, the cinematography needs to be so wide open just to keep Brian Clough’s ego inside.
Michael Sheen plays Brian Clough in such a way that he becomes one of those characters you can only refer to by his full name. Clough has one of the most winning records in the history of the Premier League of British football, and yet Clough’s name has become synonymous with “The 44 Days,” or the immensely brief time he was manager of Leeds United and led them to their worst season opening in the history of the club.
“The Damned United” is a “sports movie” but avoids any of the usual clichés or even common themes of the genre. Here is a movie in which the loser becomes the legend.
Clough began his career as the manager of Derby County, which in the mid ‘60s was a struggling team near the bottom of the 2nd Division of the league. As part of the European Cup, Derby got to play the top seeded Leeds. Derby got trounced, but Clough was embarrassed not just for his team but also personally after the Leeds manager Don Revie (Colm Meaney) refused to shake his hand and blew him off for an after game drink.
Fast forward to 1974, and Revie has been appointed the manager of the national team after a disappointing run in the World Cup. Leeds’s replacement is Brian Clough, and he told the team that every award they ever won should be thrown “in the bin because they were not won fairly.” He hated the team, he hated the players and he hated Revie, and the film becomes a character study into Clough’s reasons why.
What Sheen brings to the performance is simply an immersed, headstrong attitude. He is not humble, and yet not overly rude, boastful, sarcastic or tough. He does swear and get in some witty jabs, but Clough is merely utterly confident of himself, and Sheen’s glowing personality and constantly brimming façade gives that exact impression.
He makes good choices and is even inspiring. His knowledge of the sport and even experience as a player ultimately allowed him to lead his team to the national championships. But in all of his motivating speeches and victories, we see no one but him. Most sports movies usually individualize a member of the team, providing the screenplay with someone for the coach to relate to, but this film is all about Clough.
That feeling of singularity in the story is thanks in part to Hooper’s direction. Hooper delicately paces Clough’s rise and fall, including mostly stock footage of matches, no “big games” and particularly minimal camera movement. There’s a scene early on where Clough is on the phone with his partner Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall) as he’s just tracked down a new player for the team. The camera moves in on Clough so subtly and slowly, but we get the sensation that his head and ego are just growing with potential.
Hooper then puts Clough’s ego to the test with the Leeds squad, a group of players all dressed in bright purple, their names always starkly visible on their jerseys and identified above any other player on the Derby squad. It’s almost as if by just standing on the pitch with their backs to the camera they are challenging Clough’s ego and authority.
“The Damned United” is richly directed, photographed and acted. With Sheen, Timothy Spall and even Jim Broadbent in the cast, Hooper has assembled just about the three most underrated British actors working today, and they’re all doing wonderful screen acting.
“The King’s Speech” won the Oscar because it is so inspirational and moving. “The Damned United” is hardly an inspirational story of victory, but somehow it still seems like a win.