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The Comedy of Errors

The Damned United

3 April 09 words: Nathan Miller
There’s a shadow hanging over the film, a hole where its heart should be

Michael Sheen as Brian Clough in the Damned United

It’s always a little unfair to judge an adaptation against the strengths of its source material. But sometimes it seems necessary. Before we get there though, it should be pointed out that taken on its own merits this story of Brian Clough’s calamitous fall whilst in charge of Leeds United (and in flashback, his inexorable rise at Derby County) is a fine film. Michael Sheen’s performance in the central role is typically strong – all perfect little nuances and flashes of insolent charisma. There’s some excellent work too from the supporting cast, particularly Jim Broadbent as Derby chairman Sam Longson and Timothy Spall as Peter Taylor, Clough’s right hand and soulmate. Peter Morgan’s script tells the story engagingly and brings enough out of the characters that audiences who couldn’t care a damn about the beautiful game will still be glued to the league tables scrolling up the screen. Tom Hopper’s direction is confident, muscular and pacy, juggling the two timelines with ease.

Leeds United vs Derby County, The Damned United

However. There’s a shadow hanging over the film, a hole where its heart should be. David Peace’s novel, on which the film is based, was widely regarded on its release as not only the best novel ever written about football, but also one of the most relentlessly grim and claustrophobic books of recent years. It’s perfectly understandable that the filmmakers wanted to a show a more appealing portrait of one of British sport’s best-loved and most intriguing characters. But after jettisoning Clough’s interior monologue from the book – a furious howl of revenge against the injury that ended his career, against his directors, against the FA, against Taylor, most of all against Leeds United, their previous manager Don Revie and finally himself – Morgan has replaced it with relatively little.

Without the portents of doom (magpies, black dogs, cracked mirrors) that follow Clough at every turn even as he constantly, pathologically rejects any hint of superstition, the character of Revie (a part Colm Meaney was surely born to play) becomes less an agent of Nemesis, more a pantomime villain – the kind of high-flying bully familiar from every underdog sports movie you’ve ever seen. In the novel Revie’s rituals and lucky charms become a curse on Clough, promising and delivering the damnation of the title as his presence seeps into the new manager from every corner and corridor of Leeds’ stadium. Here though they are played mostly for laughs, a sign of Revie’s weakness and his inferiority to Old Big ‘Ead, a reason for Peter Taylor to call Revie a twat.

Michael Sheen as Brian Clough and Colm Meaney as Don Revie in The Damned United

Stripped of Peace’s occult tendencies and psychological violence, it may be that The Damned United on film is a truer version of historical events than it is on the page. Certainly it’s less harrowing to sit through. There are moments when the dark does show through: flashbulbs inside the Elland Road boardroom appearing as gothic lightning from outside the ground, or Clough’s lonely late hours phone calls from his soulless hotel. But what’s lost is the sense of epic tragedy. The story of a desperately flawed anti-hero raised up and then cast down by the vengeful gods of the league table and the television is replaced by something smaller, funnier and more parochial. Enjoyable enough for sure, but it could it have been so much better had it been a lot less fun.

 

 

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