This is a strange film in many ways. Based on a ‘fictional’ account of the story behind Brian Clough’s 44 day reign as manager of Leeds United in 1974, it nonetheless mixes documentary footage of the real events in with its re-creations of the same events. (The fiction is connected with how Brian Clough acted when he wasn’t in front of the cameras.) It isn’t a biopic because we see relatively little of Clough’s early career or of his ‘private life’ outside football. The book by David Peace from which the film is adapted was widely praised as one of the best books about sport, but even so, I’m not sure that this adaptation would have made it to the big screen without the combination of Peter Morgan as screenwriter and Michael Sheen as Clough – his third uncanny performance as a UK celebrity figure, following Tony Blair (twice) and David Frost. This combination presumably convinced Sony that they could sell the film to a wider audience in the US, where I presume Clough is a completely unknown figure.
Some of the evidence so far suggests that the film does work with people who don’t know/care about football, but who read the story as being about two men (Clough and Peter Taylor) who worked very well together in an unusually close working relationship. The Damned United is then the story about what happened when they were parted by events.
I feel torn in several directions by the film. I confess that although I can see why the book was so highly praised, I didn’t really enjoy it as it seemed to represent a very dark view of a one-dimensional Brian Clough. The film leaves out some of the darkest moments of the story and generally lightens the tone. However, I’m not sure if this works overall. I couldn’t bear to watch Sheen as Blair (I can’t stand Blair in any representation) in The Deal or The Queen and I missed Frost/Nixon, so I wasn’t prejudging Sheen. He does very well and on occasions he has the voice completely (according to my memory of Cloughie). But I don’t think that he looks like Clough and when the real Brian is on screen, I just wished he would take over. The situation with Timothy Spall and Peter Taylor is even more problematic. Spall is a great actor, but at times he and Sheen are almost like a comedy double act (as distinct from characters who liked to make each other laugh) and Spall is physically the wrong size and shape for Taylor. It works for Colm Meaney as Don Revie but all the footballers appear ‘wrong’ in terms of how they move (though not Sheen, who clearly had footballing ability in his youth).
I suspect that most football fans who remember the 1970s and who weren’t Leeds Utd fans, all hated Leeds and would have agreed with Clough that they were “dirty cheats” (although also very talented). On this basis, the film faces difficulties as a drama, since most of us are with Clough in taking on the players. Personally, I don’t really care if Clough was arrogant – he was a great manager, a great character and usually a good socialist. He should have got the England job (the scene at the FA in the film is very good). The book paints Clough as a foul-mouthed alcoholic. Much of this is taken out in the film and instead the focus moves to Clough’s relationship with Taylor. I don’t really ‘believe’ in either the Clough or Taylor characters in the film. But, of course this doesn’t necessarily stop the film being an enjoyable drama for a general audience and it is certainly competently directed and well-acted.
One scene stood out for me, when Clough visits Taylor in hospital. The camera cuts between MCUs of the two men, but both are in the ‘wrong’ part of the frame – they are at one side of the frame with the open space effectively ‘behind’ them, suggesting that our interest should be in that space, which usually the characters would speak or move into. I’m assuming that this is deliberate and that it is meant to emphasise their closeness – they almost lean out of the frame as if wanting to climb into the other frame. Overall, the style of the film is not ‘social realist’ – partly perhaps because of the difficulty of recreating the Northern landscape which has been transformed over 35 years. There are just a few locations, the Clough house, Elland Road (Leeds Utd’s ground), The Baseball Ground (Derby County) etc. The director (Tom Hooper) uses these locations as dramatic spaces, sometimes as enclosed and atmospheric, sometimes as open and desolate with smaller figures isolated in long shot. The film is carefully colour coded, avoiding the usual urge to paint the 1970s solely in browns. Instead, some scenes emphasise blues and greens and muted reds. One aspect of 1970s football the film captures well is the violence on the pitch and the dreadful state of many playing surfaces, Derby County’s especially. Here the colour schemes work well with the sound of the squelch of the mud (and the crunch of boot on bone). On the other hand, the schema backfires in Brighton, I think, which seems peopled entirely by the elderly with zimmer frames (possibly an anachronism for the UK in the 1970s?). I can see that this might be a result of the film’s attempt to represent the North/South divide in 1970s football, emphasising that Clough and Taylor had contempt for Southern football.
Whatever my misgivings about the film, wrapped up I suspect in my own memories of the 1970s, The Damned United has been a success so far, taking £1.3 million in its first two weeks (although the cinema averages on a wide release of 200+ sites were not that great and the film dropped out of the Top 10 in Week 3). The reasons for success might be any of the following:
- an interest in celebrity culture, including TV celebrities of the 1970s (Clough was a major figure on UK TV)
- a fascination with Hollywood success in the UK and the hype surrounding Sheen/Morgan
- nostalgia for the masculine values of 1970s football before the ‘fall’ brought on in the wider society by Thatcherism and the decline of British working-class culture .
Actually, I hope we get many more explorations of what happened to working-class culture in the 1970s, but as far as Brian Clough is concerned, I did enjoy ITV’s ‘spoiler’ documentary, broadcast the week before the film’s release, more than The Damned United.
There is an amazing amount of TV footage of Cloughie on YouTube and other sites and you can see many of the scenes in the film as they actually appeared on TV (including the famous Yorkshire TV interview after his resignation from Leeds). The skill of Michael Sheen’s mimicry is evident when you make the comparisons, but I still think that there are aspects of Clough’s personality in these clips that don’t appear in Sheen’s portrayal.
Here’s the interview after Clough’s sacking:
and the scene in the film when Clough tells his Leeds players that they are cheats: