The Damned United Review


The Damned United is a delightful little film made for a very specific audience—English soccer fans. The fact that I’m not part of that demographic didn’t prevent me from enjoying it, but it did keep me a little at arm’s length. Director Tom Hooper, writer Peter Morgan, and star Michael Sheen are all in fine form, but this just isn’t a film I was destined to love.

The film tells the story of Brian Clough (Sheen), “the most successful manager England never had.” Clough is a brash attention seeker, which makes him pretty difficult to work with/play for, but he was an incredibly gifted manager. The film begins just after the Clough reign begins at Leeds United, one of the most storied soccer franchises in England. Despite its prestige, many are shocked that Clough would take this position, considering the rivalry between he and former manager Don Revie (Colm Meaney). But he’s there, and he has a mighty job on his hands. He has to convince his new players—men whom he called hooligans—that he’s on their side.

The bulk of the film, however, shows Clough and his former team, Derby County, ascended the ranks, going from the bottom of the 2nd division to the top of all English soccer. He does so with the help of Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), his best friend and assistant coach who has a better eye for talent than anyone in the nation. But as Brian becomes bigger, his ambition grows exponentially, which drives a wedge between he and Peter. And when Leeds comes calling, it’s clear Peter can’t—and won’t—stand by him any longer.

While The Damned United is a soccer film first and foremost, I did appreciate the way Peter Morgan wove other, more universal issues into his screenplay. For one, the film deals a lot with the costs of winning and how it leads to dangerously unchecked ambition. Clough seemingly has it all in Derby, and at one point, he’s close to achieving his ultimate goal—winning the European championship. But his hatred of Leeds gets in the way. He plays his stars in a meaningless exhibition game, and they suffer injuries. Incidents like these are why he is so difficult to work with and why he’s not destined to succeed in Leeds.

The real reason to see The Damned United is to marvel at the tremendous work of Michael Sheen. He was exceptional in The Queen and Frost/Nixon (both of which were also scripted by Morgan), but this might be his best performance ever. Our introduction to Clough is probably the film’s strongest material, only because it’s shocking how ballsy this guy is. But Sheen has all the charisma needed to make him seem realistic. Timothy Spall, one of the finest character actors around (he’s fantastic in Secrets and Lies), is Sheen’s equal here, despite playing a character who’s much more passive than Sheen’s.

Despite everything this film does right, I can’t say I fell in love with it. It is incredibly predictable—it follows the standard sports film trajectory. But even more than that, I took issue with how soccer-centric the film is. It touches on some more universal themes, but it doesn’t do much to let non-soccer fans in, and it doesn’t apologize for it. Still, it’s a solid biopic featuring some dynamite acting, and it earns my recommendation—especially if you’re a soccer lover.

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