Wouldn’t you know it? Colin was recently complaining about the relative dearth of really good films concerning the beautiful game and, while he was coming more from the hooligan-culture side of things, the same could be said of movies about football itself.
However, 2009 has thus far proved contradictory as far as that sentiment goes – even though it was about the most hideous football team on the planet, Scumchester United, Ken Loach’s Looking for Eric (2009) was a warm, very enjoyable romp featuring no less than old ‘Ooh-Ahh Cantona’ himself and, now, we have The Damned United (2009), a superbly crafted take on the trials and tribulations of Ol’ Big Head himself, Brian Clough.
And, wouldn’t you know it, it’s everyone’s golden boy Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon (2008), further cementing his growing reputation as one of the planet’s finest character actors, at the centre of play, with his remarkable, nuanced take on one of Britain’s most loved/loathed football managers.
Director Tom Hooper makes his feature-film debut, while Peter Morgan (who wrote the play and screenplay for Frost/Nixon) offers up a gritty, believable adaptation of David Peace’s novel, itself one of the best books ever written about footy.
And we join Clough/Sheen just when the young man is about to make good – the manager of second division Derby County in 1967, Clough has big plans for the team. A shot at the big time arrives in the third round of the FA Cup, when Leeds, who were leading the first division at the time, are drawn at home to The Rams. Clough, believing Leeds’ succesful manager Don Revie (Colm Meaney) to be very much a man after his own heart (they both grew up in the same part of Middlesborough, and both live and breathe the game), is deeply offended when the manager snubs him upon his arrival with his team at Derby’s ground, which Clough had worked very hard to make spick and span for the visitors.
The match proves to be a tough affair and, despite their best efforts, Derby lose 0-2. Clough initially blames the brutality of the Leeds players (lead by Billy Bremner (Stephen Graham) and Norman Hunter (Mark Cameron)), but he and his faithful assistant Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall, excellent as ever) recognize that their side simply aren’t good enough on a technical level, and so set out to change things with canny signings. But the club’s frugal chairman, ‘Uncle’ Sam Longson (Jim Broadbent) is extremely anxious about the investment and more so about the fact that Clough didn’t consult him about the signings. Ol’ Big Head is vindicated, however, when Derby win the Second Division title in 1969, and are set to face Leeds once again, but this time in the first division. Uh-oh…
Of course, it must be said that if your interest is not normally inclined towards the cut-and-thrust of top-level football management, you might decide to give this a miss.
But that would be a pity because, like all the best biopics (and sport flicks), this is about so much more than surface, erm, sheen – the characterizations, led of course by the lead man but superbly supported by Meaney as Revie and his thuggish players, are at once intellectually arresting and gripping – nothing short of thrilling, in fact.
And, as far as the recreation of an era is concerned, Hooper doesn’t put a foot wrong – from hideous hairdos to mud-and-blood soaked pitch battles.
For my money, this may not be the best film ever made about football, but it’s certainly in the top one. Kicking!