The Damned United Review: A Truthful and Enthralling Tale of Rivalry and Ambition

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Sports films in the last decade or so have adopted a formula for storytelling that comes off as unoriginal and tiresome. Usually they focus on the difficulties of the team working together, winning, and finally having that last difficult game that is inevitably won. However, there are a few films that stand out when they venture into risky territory, either showing coaches or player’s personal faults that drastically inhibit their progression as a truly great leader on or off the field. Tom Hooper, known for his truly epic and delicate approach to the mini-series “John Adams,” has brought The Damned United to life through the creative mind of academy nominated screenwriter Peter Morgan, which is about the fascinating and egotistical early ambitions of British soccer manager Brian Clough. Effectively using the technical strengths of cinematographer Ben Smithard, igniting the story with unique and potent visuals and angles, as well as Editor Melanie Oliver, Hooper is able to show the true hubris and larger than life individual that Brian Clough truly was. Focusing on the beginning of Clough’s career to the inevitable failure of his 44 day tenure managing the champion team of Leeds United, the film is able to retain a greater depth into this particular time of growth, ambition, struggle, and egoism in Clough’s life, which is aided by the brilliant performance from British actor Michael Sheen. The Damned United is an engaging drama that balances great performances, a tightly focused and deep story of character, as well as unique and engaging technical visuals that enhance each scene making a great film experience to be remembered.

There are many character layers that are explored throughout The Damned United that are successfully brought together through the organization of Peter Morgan’s script. The film takes liberty with time, venturing to the beginning of Brian Clough’s taking over of Leeds United while scaling back to show exactly how he got there exploring each of the important plot points and the relation they have with the character’s development. Chronologically the film begins with Brian Clough, portrayed elegantly by the always remarkable Michael Sheen, as the manager of Derby County, taking them to the top of the second division. Derby County wins a drawing to play the division one champions Leeds United, managed by the infamous Don Revie who is portrayed quite accurately by the Irish actor Colm Meaney, and Brian makes sure everything is perfect for his idol to play on his field. However, Brian is snubbed of a handshake from Don, twice, a sign of disrespect that leads to a one sided rivalry and ultimately to bitter ambition to beat Don at everything he’s ever accomplished. This personal examination of a man driven by pure ambition is what dissolves his friendships and professional career, something that leads to an eventual realization that a base of humility and personal understanding doesn’t inhibit professional aspiration. After being nominated twice for the academy awards in screen writing for The Queen and Frost/Nixon, Peter Morgan displays his character development strengths in the story of The Damned United exploring a man of hubris who sees everything as an obstacle but himself in the attempt to being the best.

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A tightly organized story deserves an intimate and engaging atmosphere to accentuate those diverse emotions and scene tones that the film needs in order to be successful. Ben Smithard’s cinematography definitely provides the visual tapestry that makes the angles and visuals seem fresh as well as allowing an emotional and relatable lighting for each scenes mood. From the grittiness of the soccer field to the calm and peaceful colors of a living room home, the cinematography constantly aids the films message rather than just being uniquely visual by itself. Melanie Oliver’s editing, while the occasional debriefing of what will happen in the subsequent scenes isn’t necessary, provides a great pace and makes sense of the non-linear time, which sometimes gets a bit confusing especially in an unfamiliar world of British soccer. However, Tom Hooper has successfully directed all of the technical aspects of his film, which brings you into this unfamiliar quite gracefully. Whether or not you understand the catalyst for Brian’s obsessive rivalry, you feel it through the sound and visual aids.

Of course, a cast of Irish and British actors will have far a superior level of professionalism than any American film. The cast of The Damned United prove they are far more talented than an average American blockbuster actor. Michael Sheen’s performance is well structured, thought provoking, emotionally palpable, and relatable, proving that whether he plays David Frost or Lucian from the Underworld series he is quite the actor to be reckoned with. His sidekick and partner in the film, Peter Taylor, is played by Timothy Spall who is not quite physically the appropriate casting choice, but his line delivery and conviction to his character’s more sincere moments shows that his talent as an actor is unquestionable. The rest of the cast is comprised of memorable moments and character expressions from the likes of Colm Meaney and the always dependable Jim Broadbent, making the film more and more engaging as every character displays a complexity of development and understanding.

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It’s very rare when a single film obtains and combines the creative visions from successful screenwriters such as Peter Morgan and great storytelling directors such as Tom Hooper. What makes a film of this scope even better is when they get multiple performances from dependable and expressive actors that are exquisitely accentuated by the cinematography, sound design, art direction, and editing. The Damned United is one of the few films a year that takes a risky approach to character, one that is truly flawed, that makes for a unique and engaging film experience. Whether or not you care for real football, otherwise known as soccer, the film gracefully attracts your senses and ignites the screen with great performances and visuals. The stories intricacies show a great screenwriter at work and a director who knows how to utilize a cast and crew to make it the best possible film it could be. This is one of the rare gems in the fall that should be viewed by those who can appreciate film as the process of telling stories that deserved to be told truthfully.

Grade: A-

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