Between this and The King’s Speech, it’s easy to see Tom Hooper as a disingenuous director who treats historical events and his source materials blithely. Indeed, his adaptation of the intensely bitter fact-as-fiction novel The Damned United is so tonally dissimilar to what David Peace wrote that I’m embarrassed to imagine what the author thinks of it. However, there’s much to admire in this film—including how shrewdly Hooper has made this story into the broadly appealing one he wants to tell.
The actors in The Damned United make it worth watching even if you think you have no interest in football, let alone Brian Clough’s forty-four day stint as the manager of Leeds United. Timothy Spall, Jim Broadbent and Colm Meaney are pure quality, regardless of how much or little they look like they people they’re playing. The film’s all about Michael Sheen, though, who is mesmerising as Clough. It’s a more central role than Blair or Frost (which has to be due to the film somewhat knowingly taking advantage of those earlier successes) and this, along with Clough’s seemingly endless idiosyncracies, makes it a more interesting role, too.
The leads are, obviously, reliable actors (a distressingly large quantity of Sheen’s career involves being fantastic in terrible films), but regardless, Hooper uses them well. He could also tell the ambiguous ending wasn’t working, and let Sheen and Spall work on a scene that would wrap things up on a positive note. The closing sequence doesn’t mention the later downward spiral in Clough and Peter Taylor’s relationship—disingenuous indeed!—but that scene brings the film to a satisfying conclusion and is nicely done by the actors playing these versions of those real people.
I wish the film did more to show, like the novel, how Clough’s injury motivated him (“instead of a life, revenge”). As it is, when I knew nothing about him I thought that his football career had ended because he wasn’t very good. Still, including this aspect of him could have made him less likeable, which would have stymied the feel-good feel Hooper is clearly aiming for.
The deleted scenes show that Hooper made excellent choices about what to cut out, and where. He was careful about linking the two timelines in the film, keeping them distinct while ensuring that they flowed into each other. It’s also clear that he could see what would make the audience warm to Clough, which moments were slowing the film down, and which scenes could be truncated for maximum effect. Ninety-eight minutes long, the film goes by at a slick pace.
The various captions, though factual, are subtly biased to steer the audience in Clough’s favour. They promote Clough’s ability and his underdog spirit, and at the end give a Revie a final kick for good measure. They’re also helpful for people who don’t understand football or are unfamiliar with the real people and events.
At times, the captions are archly used as framing devices or counterpoints to the images. You don’t need to see the match that follows an argument Clough has with three Leeds players; you just see him walk away to look out at the field from under the empty stands, accompanied by a caption giving the final score and a recording of the Leeds crowd reacting to the opposing team’s winning goal.
There’s one scene that, more than any other, aligns the audience with Clough. It’s also creatively simple. Clough is so afraid that his team will lose a game that he can’t even bear to leave his office under the stands. He paces and he smokes and he watches the clock, and every time a team scores, the crowd outside rises to its feet and casts shadows across the room. It’s impossible not to feel for him as he peers out through the fogged windows, waiting for the game to end.
Hooper has made a film to win over someone who doesn’t like or understand football, knows little to nothing about the people involved, and hasn’t read Peace’s novel. Everyone else might be disappointed or even offended (Hooper steered clear of some legal controversy surrounding the novel, yet angered Clough’s family anyway). Still, I’ve had much enjoyment from The Damned United, and the effort and concise decisions involved in its making are clear to see.