FILM OF THE WEEK

The Damned United (15)

3.00

Big 'ead is back

This film transported me right back to the Saturday-night television of my childhood. It majestically conjures that Match of the Day era of kipper ties, bouffant hair, sheepskin coats, Jimmy Hill's beard, orange footballs, and pitches that looked like the battlefields of Flanders. Yet it also brings to mind another 1970s favourite of Saturday nights on the Beeb: come on, don't say you've forgotten Mike Yarwood's impressions. In among his Jimmy Saviles, Harold Wilsons and Bob Monkhouses there would usually be a skit on Brian Clough, whose campy Northern drawl Yarwood caught brilliantly and, as I thought then, unimprovably. Michael Sheen's impersonation has changed my mind.

This isn't quite a one-man show, but without Sheen's cocksure Clough at its centre it would be hard to see the point of The Damned United. Peter Morgan, the screenwriter, has a liking for stories that seem to mark turning-points – the Blair-Brown dinner of The Deal, the mumbled mea culpa of Frost/Nixon – yet on closer examination they look more like footnotes than insights. Morgan cannot see a molehill without wanting to transform it into a mountain. Has he done the same thing here? The 2006 David Peace novel on which it is based was essentially a "voice" book, an attempt to get inside the head of Brian Clough and ventriloquise his raging hatred of another manager and his football team. That he also came across as a foul-mouthed and possibly alcoholic sociopath is perhaps the reason why the Clough family have been so alienated by the project.

Morgan's Clough is a different creature from Peace's book. Gone is the brooding, lonely obsessive, replaced by Sheen's neatly coiffed, beady-eyed, bumptious Northerner, shooting from the lip and working a kind of charm that almost defies people to dislike him – though plenty did.

The film traces the arc of a tragic hero, from hubris to nemesis, but whether the story of a passing managerial failure merits such gravity is a moot point. Clough's doomed 44-day reign at Leeds is sandwiched between periods of outrageous success, the first of which comes when he takes unfancied Derby County from Second Division obscurity in the late 1960s to a First Division title in 1972. Interleaved with this – entailing a rather fussy backwards-and-forwards structure – is Clough's arrival at Elland Road to take on the managership of Leeds, the damned, United.

The shot of him standing in the car park while the Leeds players, surly and tracksuited, look down from their elevated training ground is a bit like the moment in Westerns when a new sheriff rides into town, morosely monitored by the gunslingers who've been running the place. His opening speech to the team is a yah-boo-sucks to the Leeds system of brutal tackling and cheating: he intends to turn them into champions worthy of the name, and put one over their former boss Don Revie while he's at it.

Clough's obsession with Revie is seen as the force that drives his career. Revie allegedly brought his team to Derby in Clough's fledgling days, beat them soundly and left without even the courtesy of a handshake. A later scene in which Revie, superbly incarnated by Colm Meaney, denies any memory of this slight in a live TV interview makes you wonder if Clough imagined it all along. In the same interview the latter remarks on the difference between Revie and himself: "I'm a warm man... Don's a cold person".

It's an abrasively funny line, though the way the story is shaped it's impossible to judge its truth. Given how beloved "the Don" was at Leeds one is more inclined to take it as evidence of Clough's runaway egotism: he didn't want anyone else hogging the limelight, and Revie, like him a working-class lad hailing from Middlesborough, seems to have made a particularly galling rival.

Set against this bitter antagonism is the counterpoint of Clough's dependence on Peter Taylor, his assistant, super-scout, confidante and, in the film's view, the closest thing football ever had to a love-match. Timothy Spall, with his cherishable roly-poly face, doesn't look a bit like the shrewd, foxy-eyed Taylor and, more damagingly, is given little room to suggest his legendary tactical brain. "Superstitious twat", his description of Revie, is about the limit of his sophistication.

The film generally is weak on the alchemy that made Clough and Taylor such a formidable duo, and their temporary estrangement – Taylor refused to join his old boss at Leeds – does nothing to explain why Clough ballsed it up so spectacularly in those 44 days. The one time the film might have risked an explanation is ducked: Giles, Bremner and Co stalk into the boardroom while Clough is asked to wait outside. I very much wanted to hear their side of the story.

But this is the Life of Brian, and nobody else's. As such, it's never dull, and in many little details it's a back-of-the-net pleasure: I loved the moment Clough chests the ball, swivels and shoots while barely interrupting his latest monologue (Sheen was a useful footballer before he started acting) and there's a delightful sequence of him preparing the away team's dressing room, placing an orange – and an ashtray – by each player's towel. This scene has been rejected as inauthentic, but it feels right, and the laugh is irresistible. The mingling of contemporary match-footage and period recreation is also convincingly handled, even though I don't recall Tony Gubba commentating on quite so many football games as he does here.

What the film doesn't do is explain – anything. "I wouldn't say I'm the best manager in the country", Clough said famously, "but I'm in the top one". You could easily believe him, but you wouldn't understand why from watching this. And if he was the top one, how did he manage to fail so abjectly at Leeds? Damned if I know.

What did you think of 'The Damned United'? Have your say at independent.co.uk/filmforum and we'll print the best comments in the newspaper on Wednesday.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test