Thursday, 28 May 2009

the damned united (d. tom hooper; w. peter morgan)

There's a moment when what one takes to be Nigel Clough, a fine midfielder in his day, is sitting in the back of his father's car and reading something like Shoot magazine. It's 1974 and he must be about the same age as me, an 8 year old absorbed in the farcical detail of football. Eight year old's tend to know quite a lot, more than they're given credit for, and one wonders what young Nigel made of his dad's leading Leeds to their worst start in many a season, including a home defeat to QPR, sadly not featuring footage of Stan Bowles, the one man Brian has told his bunch of Leeds terriers to stop. Bowles, so my memory tells me, had a dissolute flair, something he had in common with Clough, the subject of the movie. It's the kind of flair which seems less and less common in the British game (which was always distrustful of flair) - names like Currie, Hudson, Marsh, Osgood etc used to light up our culture, a direct link to perhaps the last true flair player of them all, Gascoigne, as though brilliance, the capacity to make the jaw drop in wonder, is no longer the preserve of the British psyche.

Sadly, Hooper's movie echoes this trend. The idea is interesting enough, but this feels in the end like a workmanlike, mid-table kind of movie, run by a cautious board more worried about the perils of dropping down the leagues (doing a Leeds or a Derby or Forest) than tilting for glory. There's one scene in the film, when Clough rails at the Derby chairman, which explicitly refers to this kind of insipid cultural approach, with Clough pointing out that without his genius Derby would still be scraping around in the then second division. That the script should put its finger on the creative conundrum which links both cinema and football; the need to balance ambition with caution on the financial playing field; only for the film to then retreat from Clough's challenge, seems perhaps indicative of the culture we inhabit. Smart enough to know the rules, but never brave enough to break them.

Elsewhere, Morgan's script is functional but rarely flies. Odd notes of exposition sneak in (as Clough explains his rivalry with Revie to Taylor for the benefit not of Taylor, who surely knows this, but the audience), and a noticeable trope continues to dominate the narrative, of two powerful men headed for inevitable confrontation (The Deal; Frost/ Nixon; Last King of Scotland). However, in this instance, the Clough/ Revie rivalry feels contrived (which is not to say that it is); a somewhat clunky narrative tool to explain Clough's maverick ambition. As even the most casual follower of English football knows, Clough was in another league to Revie. Even if he needed the impetus of the rivalry, it is only a mechanism of his ambition, not the root (much as Ferguson loves to stimulate rivalries with any other manager who threatens him, from Wenger to Keegan). The scene which really seemed to reveal the serrated tension which made Clough tick was the one where he cannot bear to watch the match and hides away in the bowels of the stadium instead, agonising as the minutes pass. Here was a glimpse of the nervous tension which Clough channelled into his management; however the film's psychological portrait of Clough remained too skin deep, too thinly veined, to live up to the intensity this moment revealed.

Which takes us to Sheen's performance. Sheen's a clever actor, and a talented one. But the more of these turns that he does, the more one starts to wonder if he's really a soulful one. Perhaps he is, but at the moment it feels as though the mimicry, the details and the finickity ambition to embody the subject he's playing are in danger of getting in the way of his engagement with that subject. His Clough feels like looking at a near flawless reproduction of the real thing: it's very impressive, but it's never quite the real thing, and if anything the flawlessness draws attention to that gap that exists between the impression and the reality. Rather than involving the audience in the story it acts as a kind of Brechtian alienation technique, and I'm not convinced that's the object of the exercise, or if it is I'm not convinced the director realised this.

As much British cinema seems to do now, The Damned United indulges in a nostalgic vision of Britain before the dawn of Sky Sports or the Premier League, when stadiums were run down and men were men. The local colour has its moments, and there is a sense of a lost England, one where Derby County could win the league. However, within this context, the way it affected the characterisation seemed unconvincing, nowhere more so than in the depiction of the fag-smoking Leeds team, who seemed like a bunch of Dickensian raggamuffins, with their surly attitudes and curly locks. The notion seemed to be that back in those more innocent days, you could become the best team in the country through sheer thuggishness, and footballing ability was a secondary requisite. Leeds under Revie were just the biggest thugs on the block. Even if there is a germ of truth in this, the whole thing is drawn out and caricatured to absurd levels. And it also conveniently ignores the fact, as noted above, that back in the day, there were players of remarkable flair, individuals, who flowered in the then first division. The pathos of what has been lost might have been all the stronger had the script found a way to connect with the fate of Clough's teams in the 21st Century. And talking of pathos, if that's the right word, there seemed to be some going with the end note stating that Clough (and Taylor) were the first and only British managers to retain the European cup, on a day when Ferguson was poised but failed to emulate them. It does seem in some way indicative of the film's weaknesses that the moments that were really powerful and evocative were the documentary shots at the end of the strange duo on the bench, or being interviewed, moments when the full extent of Clough's almost disconcerting, messianic genius finally shone through.

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