As cinematic premises go, little could probably be further from the typical Hollywood pitch meeting than a semi-fictionalised account of a 44 day period of time in the life of a 1970s football manager. Still, thanks to the word of mouth and critical acclaim that made David Peace's fine novel of the same name something of a sleeper hit, The Damned United bypasses it's more likely small screen home and gives Brian Clough, Old Big 'Ed himself, a send off he would have approved of - in stature if not in content - on the silver screen.
For the uninitiated, some quick history. Brian Howard Clough, a former professional footballer who was raised in poverty in North East England, rapidly became the most fascinating, controversial, celebrated and downright entertaining manger in soccer history. As outspoken away from the dugout as he was brilliant in it, his tempestuous relationship with assistant Peter Taylor took no-hopers Derby to the league championship, and would eventually catapult provincial n'er-do-wells Nottingham Forrest to even loftier heights, as two time European Cup Winners. But between the twin highs of his time with those two East Midlands clubs, Clough served, sans-Taylor, as manager of the most-hated team in England. Leeds United. In 1974 their manager, Don Revie, loved by Leeds fans and players alike as a father figure, left the team to manage England. Clough, despite his oft-repeated vocal criticism of Revie, was his shock replacement. In the 44 days he reigned at Elland Road, Cloughie failed spectacularly.
David Peace's book, while based around the events of those six weeks, and in extensive flashbacks, of Clough's time at Derby, is not a history. Nor is it an attempt at biography. While it is rooted in the events of that time, and the results, the timeline, the characters are all as they were in real life; much has been hypothesised. And so too is this, it's new film adaptation. While Peace's novel was an examination of a Clough mired in alcoholism and wracked by inner demons and, for the first time in his career, self-doubt, the film is lighter in tone. It wisely eschews much of the dark inner monologue of the text, and instead examines the relationship between Clough and Taylor as a tragi-comic romance.
Michael Sheen, who's previous work as Tony Blair in the Queen and David Frost in Frost/Nixon was praised for its resemblance to the real people, is terrific. His Clough crackles with the witty confidence and quickfire banter that came to characterise the manager in real life. Yet he shows us the vulnerable side of the man that so comes through in Peace's book. Timothy Spall, a wider and less glamorous than real life version of Peter Taylor, is equally at home in his character's shoes. The pair have real chemistry and when the good times roll their affection for one another is obvious.
Casting his shadow over the whole affair though is as near as this story comes to a pantomime villain, Revie - Brilliantly portrayed by a Colm Meaney who would seem to be the Leeds supremo's physical double.
Less successful are the players themselves, who at Derby revere Clough, and at Leeds despise him. Not one looks like a real footballer and most appear as caricatures of the Bremners, Giles and Hunters many of us remember - rather than fully fleshed out characters.
Still, that aside the case does well, and with Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) on typewriter duties, the script is never less than sparkling. It's a film that's as interested in celebrating the genius of Clough as wisecracking football legend as it is in examining Peace's fictional Clough as a man, and no worse for that.
Ultimately, The Damned United is damned entertaining - and not just for football fans. What little on-pitch action is largely over in a few seconds, with the human drama off the pitch providing the story's sole focus. It's a cliche, but this isn't a film about football, it's about people - and shouldn't put off those unfamiliar with Clough or the beautiful game.
Where it falls someway short is in it's scale. Clough's story was an epic, sometimes comic, ultimately dark tale of loss, redemption and eventual waste. There's a masterpiece of Oscarian proportions somewhere in there, but this is not it. A two hour vignette of a small part of Clough's life, this episode would barely make a full reel of a birth-to-death Clough biopic. It feels, ultimately, too small for the man himself. A televisual gem transferred wholesale to the big screen with no adornment. It is perhaps telling that the movie's director, Tom Hooper, is a TV man - having cut his teeth helming episodes of Cold Feet and Eastenders. It's a competently directed piece, but one that would seem far more at home on a Sunday evening on ITV rather than at your local multiplex.
Still, that gripe aside, The Damned United is a fine film, and one I heartily recommend. It's also, it's worth noting, far better than the average film about the national game. As Brian Clough would say, it might not be the best football movie ever made, but it's in the top one.