Saturday, May 9, 2009

TC: The Damned United

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What I liked about this film was the culture-historical period detail. That is, what I liked was the fairly uncompromising commitment to telling a story accurately, without the stooping into explanatory obviousness that is normally de rigeur when telling a story about historical events in what remains, after all, a culturally particularized/insular as well as literally (as Gertrude Stein insisted) an island nation, England, for an American audience.

That lack of stooping came as something of a surprise, as writer Peter Morgan's preceding two Great Hits, The Queen and Frost/Nixon, went over so well on these shores.

This time however his story, adapted from a David Peace novel, is not a transatlantic readymade; in fact, it's the opposite, a transatlantic conundrum. Americans likely just won't get it. I mean, faced with the illegible mélange of cultural signals contained in terms like "Derby County" and "Brighton and Hove Albion," who's got the time? To, like figure out the meaning?

At the screener preview I saw, before the lights went down, someone commented/boasted, "I don't know anything about English football--what shape is the ball?"

Anthony Quinn, writing in the Independent, captures what's good about The Damned United: the historical specificity.

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.

The film, far easier on Clough than the projective, overwrought Peace novel, and in fact far more comedy than tragedy, has a soft "redemptive" (i.e. happy) ending in which two great actors, the versatile comic impersonator Michael Sheen, playing Clough, and the always commanding Tim Spall, playing Peter Taylor, struggle their way, by means of many cuts, through an "I-love-you-man" scene that is entirely unearned by the rest of the film. Along with an earlier out-of-nowhere attempt to portray the endlessly self-confident, nay call it arrogant, Clough's sudden desolation in the loss of his dignity at the bitter end of his 44-day stint as Leeds United manager--we find him alone on a hotel room bed, late at night, drunken and unassuaged, phoning his perceived adversary, Don Revie (Colm Meaney)--this Spall/Sheen love scene suggests something out of a different kind of movie: perhaps the one that would have been made by Stephen Frears, who turned this script down.

But Tom Hooper has picked it up and what he's made of it is for the most part a belter.

In this deleted scene: Brian Clough (Sheen) admonishes Derby County players at half time, ordering them to consume a bottle of brandy.

The bottle of brandy

RATING: In the Crab Nebula, where I viewed this screener, all films get the same rating: a trillion stars.

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Dale said...

Tom, thanks for reviewing this. I want to see this. Every film you ever suggested to me has been terrific.

TC said...

Thanks, Dale. Enjoy!