Having previously teamed up to bring us Brits as well known and various as Tony Blair and David Frost, actor Michael Sheen and screenwriter Peter Morgan are no strangers to daunting dramatizations. Their latest, The Damned United, is confounding in a different way, as it's the duo’s first film to tackle a character unfamiliar to most Americans. Several British critics have wondered whether this eponymous adaptation of a biographical novel about revered British soccer manager Brian Clough, with lines like, “Derby could be one of the greats – alongside United, Liverpool, Leeds!” will translate stateside. Were it a better movie, it would have had a shot, but The Damned United ultimately becomes the first film from Morgan and Sheen to disappoint. As our friends across the pond might put it, The Damned United hasn’t got a patch on The Queen or Frost/Nixon.
Like those two films, The Damned United doesn’t attempt to chronicle the entire sweep of its subject’s life. Instead, Morgan and director Tom Hooper focus on Clough’s first professional peak -- managing the scrappy Derby County team to the top of the English league -- and his subsequent plateau, during which he spent 44 days as the ill-received manager of soccer behemoth Leeds United. Morgan is once again fascinated by public relations; we see how the outspoken Clough manages to alienate both his adversaries and his friends (most notably Peter Taylor [Timothy Spall], his long-suffering assistant manager), in part by speaking so freely with the press. And just like The Queen and Frost/Nixon, The Damned United culminates in a momentous televised moment, in this case a joint interview with Clough and Don Revie (Colm Meaney), Clough’s lifelong professional rival and far-more-popular predecessor as Leeds manager.
Those expecting the euphoric highs and rough-and-tumble lows of a more conventionally rousing sports movie may leave underwhelmed. I’ve always thought of soccer as a uniquely cinematic sport – all action and contact, with none of the tedious pauses of baseball or football – but The Damned United never puts that notion to the test. We see little of the actual games that are so pivotal to Clough, as Morgan’s script sticks mostly to the politics taking place off the field. This is also in keeping with Clough himself (at least, according to the film), who, out of nerves, often avoided watching crucial matches. But this narrative gamble doesn’t pay off; by neglecting to show us the athletic transformations supposedly taking place under Clough’s guidance, the players who meant the world to Clough remain indistinguishable to us.
Even the charismatic Clough himself remains curiously abstract. With his essential amiability, Sheen was perfect for real-life people-pleasers like Blair and Frost. But those characters were always anxious rather than anguished, lightly concerned rather than genuinely pained. Sheen’s Clough never becomes the outsized, mercurial figure the other characters describe because he never seems truly troubled. By all accounts, the real Clough (who struggled for decades with alcoholism) was far more complicated than the pleasantly plainspoken man shown here. But that dissonance may owe less to Sheen than to director Hooper, who has acknowledged that 35 minutes were cut from the finished film, saying, “We shot a lot more neurosis than we used.”
Even if we never get to see Clough in full, The Damned United does have its minor pleasures. Shot with harsh natural lighting in dingy browns and grays, the film perfectly captures the dreariness of '70s England that made Clough such a welcome splash of national color. Morgan must have especially relished the inclusion of a televised interview between Frost and Sheen-as-Clough; the charmingly meta moment sparks one’s anticipation for the pair's forthcoming film The Special Relationship, in which Sheen will play Blair for Morgan once again. For both its subject -- the film ends before Clough’s most venerated victories, as manager of Nottingham Forest -- and its makers, The Damned United hints at more promising ventures to come.