2009 // UK // Tom Hooper // August 9, 2010 // DVD - Sony (2010)
This prickly tale of the rise and fall (and subsequent humbling) of notoriously sharp-tongued football manager Brian Clough provides an array of unexpected pleasures. To be sure, the film boasts a worthy pedigree. It was adapted by Frost/Nixon and The Queen writer Peter Morgan from a novel by David Peace, who also penned the Red Riding quartet, which was itself adapted into one of the finest British films of the past decade. However, director Tom Hooper was not known to me, save by reputation as the helmsman of all seven episodes of HBO's lauded John Adams. Accordingly, it's rewarding to witness Hooper's adroit handling of The Damned United's twin timelines (a structure that echoes, among other works, Sean Penn's Into the Wild), as well as his determination to tweak sports movie conventions. There are plenty of histrionic confrontations and tearful reunions, all of them entirely unsurprising, but for a film about football, it boasts remarkably little gameplay footage. Hooper and Morgan keep the focus on Clough's personality: his unflagging ambition, unfortunate taste for conflict, and self-destructive hubris. It's a daring thing to make a sports film about the limits of personal achievement, even if the subject is a manager rather than an athlete. The Damned United's full-throated commitment to its themes is impressive, and that commitment drips from every frame and performance. Cinematographer Ben Smithard's striking recreation of 1970s England is exquisite, from moldering Leeds to sun-kissed Brighton. And while Michael Sheen doesn't quite seem to inhabit the same world as his fellow performers, his portrayal of Clough—the startling blend of priggishness, throbbing ego, and lip-curling desperation—is mesmerizing stuff.