The story of Brian Clough, a man who, as the film The Damned United reminds us, was the finest manager the England football team never had, is a fascinating one. Just read through one of his autobiographies, or the terrific Provided You Don’t Kiss Me by Duncan Hamilton, and you get some idea of the complex genius simmering behind the eyes of the late, great, Old Big ‘Ead. Of course, the book that most commonly, of late, has been talked about with relation to Clough has been David Pearce’s The Damned United, a novel telling the story of the great man’s ill-fated 44 day reign at Leeds United. The book hasn’t been shy of controversy itself, with subsequent editions adjusted after former Leeds player Johnny Giles threatened libel action against its publisher over the way he was portrayed within it.
All of which made it all the more surprising that the film that’s been spat out at the end of all of this is quite so conventional, and really just a little bit ordinary. It boils Clough down to a man fuelled by a rivalry with Don Revie (played by the always-excellent Colm Meaney in the film), the man he would replace as manager of Leeds United, and also someone innately tied to his assistant, Peter Taylor. There are actually elements of a romantic comedy structure in the relationship between Clough and Taylor as presented in the film, but things are kept at a fairly simple level.
Wisely jumping between his early days – where Clough took Derby County to glory before his constant sniping at the board fuelled his exit – to his ill-fated Leeds reign (complete with a group of players who hate his guts, and are still stuck in the Don Revie way of doing things), the film rarely digs too deeply, and is primarily content to simply tell its story in a manner that borders more on a TV drama rather than big screen production.
This, usually, would be the ingredients for a two-star film, which at times is exactly what The Damned United feels like. But then someone had the idea of casting Michael Sheen. We’ve already seen Sheen on screen in the last year as David Frost in Frost/Nixon, and, of course, there’s the small matter of his memorable portrayal of Tony Blair in The Queen. Here, as Brian Clough, he’s brilliant again, genuinely transforming himself into a different character rather than simply trying to be a mimic. Despite a good supporting turn from Timothy Spall as Peter Taylor, this is very much Sheen’s show, and he’s utterly in control of his performance from the moment he first steps on screen. He single-handedly drags the film up to earn it an extra star.
The Damned United is, to be fair, a film more suited to the home than the big screen, and it’s a competent telling of a fascinating story. It’s far, though, from the definitive telling of it, and thus far it’s in books, rather than on the screen, where you’ll get some idea as to the complexity and character of Brian Clough.
The Blu-ray presentation is generally fine, with few moments where the picture quality heavily impressed. The source material, to be fair, makes that a tough order, with a mix of archive footage and generally dimly shot material. It’s a clear and crisp presentation, which is about all that you can realistically ask for. The audio is equally up to the job, if not particularly exciting. Some nice subtleties do lift it, though, and a broad soundstage is well employed.
In terms of supplementary material, there’s a good deal of it.
The making of documentary, entitled Perfect Pitch and running to just over 16 minutes, includes writer Peter Morgan, producer Andy Harries and director Tom Hooper talking about adapting the book then casting Michael Sheen (with a contribution from the actor himself), along with a wider shot of a football crowd that reveals many of them to be dressed dummies. Also covered is shooting the games themselves, and recreating the look of the old Leeds and Derby grounds (that led the production to Chesterfield). It’s quite interesting, and worth spinning at least once.
Creating Clough, meanwhile, finds Michael Sheen talking about how he went about portraying the character in the film. Running to just over 10 minutes, it’s an interesting piece, that also takes in his thoughts on Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney’s contributions to the film. Sheen also considers whether Don Revie and Leeds United were ultimately responsible for the ‘forming’ of Brian Clough, in the light of his subsequent successes at Nottingham Forest.
Next up is Remembering Brian (running just shy of ten minutes). The title gives this one away, as those involved with the film pay tribute to Brian Clough, with the help of some title cards explaining some of the man’s amazing achievements. Nice to see John McGovern, one of his most acclaimed former players, contributing to the piece too, along with former Leeds hero Eddie Gray. Their presence gives the featurette a bit of added substance.
The Changing Game: Football In The Seventies is a featurette that considers just what its title suggests. Again, it’s talking head-centric, with names such as Eddie Gray and Austin Mitchell MP. What’s interesting is it takes some time to present another side of Don Revie to the one presented in the film. That’s welcome balance.
The commentary is the pick of the remaining features, and it’s worth a spin. Featuring the film’s producer and director, along with Michael Sheen, it’s a fact-packed track that throws in the likes of the dummies in the crowd being ported in from the set of Frost/Nixon, watching the film with some of the former Leeds United players, and the difficulty in getting some permissions.
The extras pack, to be fair, is something you’d hope would be of strength and value, given the true-life subject at the heart of the film, and while there’s scope for further exploration, a good job is done. With the film too in its natural home on the smaller screen, The Damned United isn’t a bad buy. There’s still a great Brian Clough story waiting to be told on screen, though…
The Film:The Disc:
The Damned United will be released on Blu-ray on August 31, 2009.