April 02, 2009

The Damned United


The Damned United opens to the songs of Leeds supporters- it closes to the songs of Derby supporters. The film's power and drive lie in the narrative of the rivalry of these two clubs led by Don Revie and Brian Clough during the late sixties and early seventies. It also chronicles the almost manic devotion to success that Clough felt, the way that he set up Revie as an inspiration and later as a nemesis and the way that nothing came before that devotion to success nothing, his family or his long term partner, Peter Taylor. The narrative is separated into two parts- one half tells the story of how Clough at Derby became the most promising young manager in England, how he built a team of champions and how eventually he fell out with the board and was sacked. The second story concerns Clough's 44 days at Leeds United- a month and a half of disunion and disaster which culminated with Clough being sacked but becoming financially secure for the first time in his life (a fact that the film does not dwell enough on, though Clough later in interviews stressed it). The stories are told well but is there more to them- do these stories matter or is this a film only to see as a Derby or Leeds supporter?

The film unsubtly makes the point that behind all of this lies a love story between two northern males- giving film critics everywhere a chance to make an intellectual point. Essentially this film makes sense as a romantic comedy. Clough and Taylor are united at the beggining of the film- we see their partnership blossom and Clough's magnetism drive it onward and then, through stupidity, Clough throws it all away. At the last of course Clough becomes contrite and goes back to Taylor and apologises. Grovelling on the ground, he says sorry and the two men are united hugging at the end of the film in a spasm of emotional intensity. There is some truth to this account of Clough and Taylor's relationship but to be honest, it is nothing that we have not seen before on screen. There is a sense that this film loses out by relinquishing the individuality of the two men concerned: bar the fact that they were males with northern British accents, would this really have been out of place in a Hollywood romcom.

The other thing the film could and should be is an account of how Clough knit together a team at Derby and failed to knit together one at Leeds. To be honest again the real issue here is that we are shown the surface of both Cloughs. We are shown the Clough who at Derby nurtured his players and the Clough at Leeds who told his players to take their medals and put them in a bin. We are shown the Leeds players gathering in the background and intriguing against him- but we are never offered any reasons why Clough was an inspirational leader at one place and wasn't at another. We could all go into a dressing room and shout 'Come on', some people have a natural wit and intelligence, but few even of those are Brian Clough! The film doesn't have anything save the natural pieties to say about football management- this goes for Don Revie as well. Though the film captures Revie's family building- the way he would take all his players to bingo games- it shows that as mere illustration, not what it was a method (whether conscious or not) that bound together those young men- in some cases young thugs- into a team.

The performances in the film are fine: Michael Sheen slips into caricature as Clough occasionally, Timothy Spall does well as Taylor (though playing an impassive and goodhearted working class man is not that much of a stretch for the veteran of several Mike Leigh films), Jim Broadbent plays a caricature midlands chairman complete with plump cigar drooping from between his lips. All the cast are fine- but somehow the lack of definition within the film means that the performances do not add up to the sum of their parts. The Leeds United squad are a perfect example- the actors capture the characters well but never really get them to be anything more than thugs with Celtic accents. That means that we never really care for them- and with Sheen's caricature neither do we really care that much for Clough. It is an entertaining film- the performances make it that- and Sheen's Clough gives the laughs and the lines their due merit but its the deeper points, the broader contexts (you never get an impression of Britain in the seventies like you do for instance from Control), that you never get. Ultimately the Damned United is ok, but it is damned to be soon forgotten.

4 comments:

James Higham said...

Never knew you were a football fan.

James Hamilton said...

I haven't seen it. Do you think I should, Gracchi? The clips I've seen haven't impressed me, in all honesty. And although it was a brilliant novel in the first place, everyone read it as biography, and in that respect, no...

Gracchi said...

James- I've got two opinions. One is that it is fun and this is why I saw it to see Brian Clough or someone playing Brian Clough in action. But I think on the other hand you'd be infuriated as I was by its pretty pathetic understanding of who Clough was and what he was. I'm not sure its worth catching at the cinema- its probably ok to catch at home on tv but only if you remember what the film is and what it isn't. It is a caricature of Clough and Taylor and not that great a caricature- though the Revie performance is very good- what it isn't is a description of what made Clough so good and so interesting and the Leeds episode so disastrous. I'd give it 1 out of 10 for analysis and 4 out of 10 for caricature.

Gracchi said...

Didn't you know I was a football fan James! I'm surprised but I'm for my sins a Leeds fan.