Screenwriters: Peter Morgan
Starring: Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, Jim Broadbent, Colm Meaney, Joseph Dempsie, Stephen Graham
Running Time: 98 mins
Bone structure aside, actor Michael Sheen is like Frankenstein's monster with writer Peter Morgan conducting the lightning. Together they’ve reanimated Tony Blair in The Deal for TV and then more famously in The Queen, David Frost in Frost/Nixon, and for their latest trick, football manager Brian Clough in The Damned United. If you believe David Peace's book, the late saviour of Derby County also has much in common with Mary Shelley's antihero; the spotlight turning him into a snarling beast. The film takes a less controversial, light-hearted approach yet still hits the target.
On screen, Clough's wicked sense of humour is used as much to endear him as it is to underscore his downfall. Sheen clearly delights in this aspect of the man, regaling the press with quips like, "I wouldn't say I'm the best manager in the business, but I'm in the top one," when he's announced as the new manager of Leeds United in 1974. They're already top of the heap when Don Revie (Colm Meaney), Clough's nemesis, leaves the post to take charge of the England team. But despite working miracles to launch Derby County into the first division, Clough only lasted 44 days.
Flashing back to 1968, Clough's fall from grace is explained in his rise to fame. He looks up to Revie, excited as a schoolboy when Leeds United come to play at Derby. It's a warming, funny build-up to this initial meeting, with Clough humbly laying out the towels in the locker-room and unwrapping his own crystal glasses, hoping for a post-match drink. Derby go on to lose the match, but what really aggravates Clough is that Revie neglects even to shake his hand. He promptly calls on assistant Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall) to splash the cash on new players and Derby begin an ascent that brings Clough back into striking distance of Revie. But it also puts him in the firing line of the penny-pinching chairman (a wonderfully ruddy Jim Broadbent).
Of course there's a good dose of footballing action, with Sheen getting a chance to show off the moves that earned him a trial at Arsenal before becoming an actor. Nonetheless, it would be a stretch to call this a sports film because all the key action happens off the pitch. One of the more nail-biting matches is captured in shadows and noise while Clough sweats it out behind the stands in his poky office. Visually, the film is as eloquent as it is stylish. Director Tom Hooper (who graduated from Byker Grove to John Adams) makes the industrial North less grim and more like a grand stage where Clough is front and centre. That's ideal for Sheen, exposing the cracks in a man who basically gets lost in his own performance. Compared to the other media darlings he's played, this is more heightened but it's also grittily real and compelling.
Clough's relationship with Peter Taylor opens another window into his mindset. Hooper frames them like lovers, whispering on the phone when Mrs Clough isn't looking, feeding each other literally (hand to mouth!) and metaphorically through their shared passion for 'the beautiful game'. More than that, Taylor is the power behind the throne which is painfully demonstrated by his absence at Leeds. Of course Clough is loathe to admit it, but the things that go unsaid are what make their partnership fun to watch. Like Taylor, Timothy Spall creates a big impact without making too much noise so it's a shame that, towards the end, Hooper nearly blows it with a scene of full disclosure. We're reminded that it is just a game after all; Clough may have trampled on a few people's feelings, but nobody got killed. That said, there's enough drama in this 90 minutes to rival England vs. Argentina.
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