Wednesday, 7 October 2009

TIFF Dispatch: The Damned United

Long time no post. Been otherwise occupied with my other calling - namely, tagging photos over on Flickr. But now that Michael Sheen's face is in all the popup and banner ads on all my favorite Web sites, it must mean that The Damned United is quickly approaching its U.S. release date.

This was, I think, my first gala premier - meaning there would be a good chance of seeing some of the principals involved in making the film, and I was not disappointed. Festival CEO Piers Handling (at least I think it was Piers Handling - balcony seats at Roy Thompson Hall are serious nosebleed territory) introduced Tom Hooper, the director, who subsequently introduced Michael Sheen - he of Frost/Nixon and The Queen - and who plays Brian Clough, the main subject of The Damned United.

"I wouldn't say I'm the best manager in the country, but I'm in the top one."

There are (at least) two ways to watch The Damned United. The first is to enjoy it as a straightforward accounting of the managerial career of Brian Clough, the football manager who took sleepy Derby County to the top of England's Premier League and who for 44 fateful days helmed the famed Leeds United following the departure of Don Revie, who had taken Leeds to the top of English football in what Clough saw as an ugly, brutish style.

Taken at this level, the film succeeds marvellously - the period detail is perfect, the pitches are soggy and the players - even those playing for Leeds - are a scraggly bunch who despite their champion status still travel by bus. The Barclays Premier League this is not. Jim Broadbent is a hoot to watch as the crusty Derby owner who's content to keep the team playing (if not exactly winning) and Timothy Spall is equally impressive - as always - as the late Peter Taylor, Clough's right-hand man and talent scout.

The other way to watch The Damned United is as a character study of a brash, overconfident and driven man who's convinced that there's no point in playing the game unless you can beat the best and be the best. It's hard to argue with Clough's philosophy of the game - "Football is a beautiful game. And it should be played beautifully," he tells anyone who will listen. Clough is talented, hardassed and convinced of his own greatness, even if he's not always sure of his next move. Still, you want him to succeed - he clearly loves his players and he does bring out their best. But his decision to take the Leeds job without Taylor and his subsequent failure reveals his flaws as well.

Clough is often referred to as "the best football manager England never had," and it's not hard to see why. A pre-credits postscript recounts his continued success while his predecessor Revie fades into obscurity.

Whichever way you choose to watch The Damned United, you're bound to enjoy it. GOAAAALLLLLLLLLLL!

No comments: