It's 1974 and the England football team have failed to quality for the World Cup, resulting in the sacking of manager Alf Ramsey and the hiring of Leeds United supremo Don Revie (Colm Meaney), whose promotion leaves a gap at his club that revered Derby County manager Brian Clough (Sheen) eagerly fills. However, as flashbacks spanning the previous seven years reveal, the relationship between Clough and Revie began on a sour note when Clough's then-lowly Derby hosted Revie's European champs during a FA Cup match in '67, where Revie's Leeds knocked Derby out of the cup and Clough's hospitality was snubbed by their famous visitors.
A passionate, grudgeful man, Clough privately cultivates a profound hatred for Revie and channels his emotions into transforming Derby's fortunes and leading them to top-flight Division 1, with the help of trusted friend and astute assistant manager Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall). However, having successfully turned Derby into a peer of the mighty Leeds, Clough's desire to surpass Revie's achievements by stepping into his shoes runs into trouble; first through the refusal of Taylor (the indubitable brains behind his success) to join him at their former rivals, and then through the realization the Leeds squad are fiercely loyal to his beloved predecessor.
More character study than sports movie, The Damned United is an entertaining movie that again highlights just how well Sheen can encapsulate the spirit of a person without the need for a pitch-perfect impersonation. His portrayal of Clough is the undisputed reason to watch this movie, as his charming take on the legendary manager is both playful, snide and witty. At heart, it's a buddy movie between Clough and Taylor, where ones character defects and ambition soils a friendship and leads to nothing but misery and professional failure, before reconciliation restores both to even greater glory.
As someone with only a passing knowledge of the real Brian Clough, I'm told there are a great many liberties taken with the facts in both David Peace's novel and this adaptation. Indeed, Clough's surviving relatives have condemned the inaccuracies of the tale being told, and have kept their distance from its marketing. I can't comment directly on any factual errors, but all I can say is that the film presented told a story very well and Sheen appeared to capture what I'd imagined the real Clough to be. Impressionists copy a subject's mannerisms, voice and intonations, but Sheen seems to just absorb their humanity and it's enough to cover any cracks in the mimicry.
It's certainly a movie that occasionally has the feel of an ITV drama (as most of Sheen's biopics tend to, actually –- The Queen even started life as one), but The Damned United still has a certain zip thanks to director Tom Hooper (HBO's John Adams) and his ability to capture the dull browns, grimy terraced houses, and overcast skies we assume every day of '70s Britain was imbued with. He also wisely keeps the matches mostly confined to brief snapshots, or newsreel footage from the era, to get around the fact that football's always been near-impossible to replicate on film with any degree of believability. Hooper's less successful with the pacing of the piece, as the story begins to lose its grip about halfway through and even Sheen's mastery can't keep you as invested in the story as you perhaps were early on.
Overall, The Damned United is a decent bopic blessed with a great performance at its core, but it doesn't really hang together as tightly as it should have. It's not dramatic or funny enough to leave a lasting impression on its audience; it's an assortment of fun scenes and enjoyable characterizations that will entertain football fans and non-fans alike, but it never truly moves.
Picture: (1.81:1, 1080P, AVC/H.264/MPEG4) A good transfer with a decent amount of detail and wonderful contrast, with vibrant skin tones. Nice detail and clarity (especially in the scenes set in sunny Brighton), although there are intentionally lots of muggy, dim scenes and the use of archive footage is obviously very gritty.
Sound: (Dolby True HD 5.1, Dolby 5.1 audio description) A decent soundmix with enough dimensionality for a film of its type, but it only really pops to life for the brief footballing sequences.
- Commentary: yakker track with director Tom Hooper, actor Michael Sheen and producer Andy Harries.
- Deleted Scenes & Commentary from Tom Hooper: nine deleted scenes, supposedly removed because most paint Brian Clough in a more negative light than the movie itself.
- Cloughisms: moments taken from archive footage of the real Brian Clough, offering the world five pearls of wisdom that helped define his sharp-witted image.
- Perfect Pitch - Making Of: a 16-minute long documentary featuring contributions from director Hooper, writer Peter Morgan, choreographer Simon Clifford, producer Andy Harries, and Sheen and Spall. Mostly amusing for how it reveals the crowd at the stadium scenes were dressed mannequins, but an interesting watch nonetheless.
- Creating Clough: 10-minute piece where actor Martin Sheen gives us a quick insight into how he went about capturing Clough's spirit for the film.
- Remembering Brian: a nearly 10-minute featurette where the cast/crew pay tribute to the real man behind the movie, which also highlights some of his achievements in the game. Features former players John McGovern and Eddie Gray.
- The Changing Game - Football In The Seventies: a documentary just shy of 20-minutes showing us just how the beautiful game has changed since the gritty '70s before multi-million pound transfer deals. Interestingly, it paints the film's "villain" Don Revie in a more benevolent light.
- Trailers: promotional trailers for The International, Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Angels & Demons, Terminator Salvation and Year One.
directed by: Tom Hooper written by: Peter Morgan (based on the novel by David Peace) starring: Michael Sheen (Brian Clough), Timothy Spall (Peter Taylor), Maurice Roëves (Jimmy Gordon), Elizabeth Carling (Barbara Clough), Colm Meaney (Don Revie), Henry Goodman (Manny Cussins), Jimmy Reddington (Keith Archer), Liam Thomas (Les Crocker), Danny Tomlinson (David Harvey), Lesley Maylett (Paul Reaney), Chris Moore (Paul Madeley), John Savage (Gordon McQueen), Mark Cameron (Norman Hunter), Tom Ramsbottom (Trevor Cherry), Matthew Storton (Peter Lorimer), Peter McDonald (Johnny Giles), Stephen Graham (Billy Bremner), Bill Bradshaw (Terry Yorath), Stuart Gray (Eddie Gray), Alex Harker (Allan Clarke), Craig Williams (Joe Jordan), Joe Dempsie (Duncan McKenzie), Jim Broadbent (Sam Longson), Brian McCardie (Dave Mackay), Martin Compston (John O'Hare), Colin Harris (John McGovern, Derby), Giles Alderson (Colin Todd), Stewart Robertson (Archie Gemmill), Laurie Rea (Terry Hennessey), Tomasz Kocinski (Roy McFarland), Mark Bazeley (Austin Mitchell), Mark Jameson (Head Groundsman), David Stevenson (Reporter), Nathan Head (Reporter), Chris Wilson (F.A Disciplinary) / BBC Films/Left Bank Pictures/Screen Yorkshire / 97 mins. / £5 million (budget)