On the Aisle
By Tony Macklin
‘The Damned United’
Peter Morgan is a screenwriter with a golden touch. Morgan does screenplays that take actual figures and events from recent history and gives them a burnish that attracts Oscar notice.
In 2006, “The Queen” was released. Morgan wrote it, and Helen Mirren won the Oscar as Best Actress.
Also in 2006, “The Last King of Scotland” was released. Morgan wrote the screenplay (adapting Giles Foden’s novel) and Forrest Whitaker won the Oscar for Best Actor.
For last year’s movie “Frost/ Nixon,” Morgan wrote the play and screenplay, and Frank Langella got an Oscar nomination.
Morgan himself has won Academy Awards for his screenplays of “The Queen” and “Frost/Nixon.”
Now Peter Morgan is back. His latest movie is “The Damned United,” with a role for an actor whose stellar skill deserves an Oscar nomination. The movie has a superb performance by Michael Sheen as British football legend Brian Clough.
Since Sheen is not portraying a queen, a tyrant, or a former president, he is less likely to receive a nomination, but he’s certainly contending. He served writer Morgan well when he played prime minister Tony Blair in “The Queen” and David Frost in “Frost/Nixon.”
This time Sheen is the major lead. In “The Damned United” Sheen plays Brian Clough, the brash, egotistical football manager (coach of soccer, for Americans). In the film, as he did in actuality, Clough rises to the top of his profession, plummets and shakily tries to reclaim his damaged equilibrium. It makes for a hellacious ride.
Ironically, “The Damned United” occurs before Clough’s ultimate success with Nottingham Forest. But it sets a mighty stage. All the major parties are deceased now, but they lived through a turbulent time in British football that makes for a compelling film.
Clough begins his assent at downtrodden Derby, a lackluster team at the bottom of its class. Through will and cleverness Clough leads the team to success. He is aided by his assistant manager Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), who has unique knowledge and is a great scout of talent. Together they make a potent combination — fire and coolness.
But inevitably Clough’s fire burns out of control. After Derby prevails, Clough is chosen to lead the team from Leeds, whose extremely popular and successful coach Don Revie (Colm Meaney) has been appointed to head the English National Team.
Clough assumes his new position in a manner very hostile to Revie’s accomplishments and the conflict is on. Revie watches as Clough stubbornly and unwittingly destroys his team, which is still loyal to their former coach. Clough’s reign lasted only a miserable 44 days. Was he going to have any future?
Director Tom Hooper (HBO’s “John Adams”) keeps things shifting back and forth in the years from 1968 to 1974. The flashbacks give an unsettled quality to the action, which reflects Clough’s experiences.
“The Damned United” shouldn’t work as well as it does. But the excellent acting prevails. Sheen invests Clough with charm and energy. Although he’s a hellion, he’s a charming hellion. Sheen makes us understand Clough’s demons.
Spall is very effective as Clough’s low-key friend and supporter. Irish actor Colm Meany makes Revie a formidable adversary. The hostile looks that pass between Clough and Revie are priceless. Jim Broadbent, as usual, is solid as the Derby team’s owner.
“The Damned United” is a story of mad ambition and rampant ego that threatens personal friendship on the football fields of Britain.
It’s a brilliant match.