'The Damned United' tells the incredible story of a man given a once in a lifetime opportunity and royally screwing it up. Of course, the film is also a fictional account of Brian Clough, considered one of the greatest football managers in England, and his very short reign as manager of Leeds United. Based on the David Peace novel of the same name, I like to think the story, too, is about a passionate and determined man who finally captures his white whale. But he makes the mistake of wanting to retrain the wild beast and eliminate all traces of its unruly nature. Making matters worse, he is never once polite about it or even cares to ask the creature what it wants in return. To me, that's the real pleasure of watching this sports drama from the makers of 'The Queen' and 'Frost/Nixon.'
When Leeds United manager Don Revie (Colm Meaney) is hired to take the England team to the next World Cup, he is ironically replaced by his most vocal critic, Brian Clough (Michael Sheen). But before showing up on his first day of work, Clough decides to do an interview for Yorkshire Television where he once again voices his disparaging opinion of the club and their former coach. By the time he finally arrives, the chairmen and players already feel on edge about Clough's presence. He further offends the team by famously telling them to throw their medals and trophies in the garbage because they've never won a game fairly. After back to back losses at the start of the season, Clough's position leading a championship team came to a close after only 44 days.
Credit must be given to director Tom Hooper ('John Adams') for this well-made film, working from a very well-structured script by Peter Morgan ('The Other Boleyn Girl,' 'The Last King of Scotland'). Carefully interweaving the weight of past events upon the present, Hooper does an excellent job of keeping flashback sequences in logical order and not letting them lapse into some kind of gimmick. In going back and forth, we learn a great deal about Clough's personality -- the talented athlete who knew how to make champions out of underdogs -- and we see a man rather than a run-of-the-mill account of a sports legend. It is all very well done as we witness the destructive nature of a hurt ego, an individual driven by something other than the simple goal of winning.
Michael Sheen is absolutely terrific and convincing. Aside from being a domineering but sparkly vampire in 'New Moon,' his last few roles have been very impressive and brilliant indeed, leaving little to know it's the same actor in each movie. One minute, he is the werewolf Lucian in the 'Underworld' series, and the next, he's the prime minister of England during a shocking tragedy ('The Queen') or interviewing President Richard Nixon post Watergate ('Frost/Nixon'). Here, he's fascinating and captivating in making Clough a man who earns our sympathy in spite of his hotheaded and arrogant disposition. In 'The Damned United,' the renowned manager's pride and self-satisfaction gets the best of him, but Sheen keeps us invested in the consequences of his damned stubbornness.
I've read about the Clough family's dissatisfaction with Peace's retelling of events, and they didn't much care for the idea of a film adaptation either -- to the point of snubbing a private screening. However, the novel is, and always has been, a dramatization of a flawed individual whose arrogance serves him well in certain situations but becomes his undoing in others. And what Hooper and his production team have constructed is more than a simple account of a legendary football manager and his short-lived reign atop a championship club. While not entirely accurate of the controversy surrounding the incident, the film is a well-told drama about pride and hurt egos clouding better judgments. With Sheen at the center, 'The Damned United' is great entertainment about a determined personality who turns out to be his own worst enemy.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Damned United' debuts on Blu-ray with a Region Free BD50 disc and housed in the standard blue keepcase. Viewers are greeted with a Sony promo of Blu-ray titles and a series of other previews before usual menu of options shows on screen.
'The Damned United' makes its Blu-ray debut with good marks. Its rough and aged appearance will have to work hard at warming up to viewers because the picture often looks nothing like what we'd expect from high definition. However, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.85:1) displays the deliberate look created by the filmmakers and makes for an enjoyable presentation. Contrast is greatly restrained, with only slight gradational differences in the grayscale. Black levels are significantly affected by this with limited resolution, to the point of almost looking gray in some scenes. Surprisingly, delineation holds it together, although shadows are terribly murky. Flesh tones, too, habitually appear pale and sickly. Only thing which serves as a reminder that you're watching HD is a strong color palette and a well-defined image. Primaries are rendered accurately, particularly red, while fine object and textural details are distinct and in focus. Despite not looking like much, the freshly-minted transfer is clean and puts on a good show.
The film also arrives with a very pleasing Dolby TrueHD soundtrack that never overwhelms viewers, but it works for the subject matter. Being a drama, the design is heavily focused in the front with strong acoustics and clean dialogue reproduction. Dynamic range feels robust and expansive in the few scenes of soccer action though it is hardly put to the test at any particular point in the movie. The subwoofer isn't given much of a workout -- not that it would be expected -- yet the low-end is present throughout to provide some depth. Rear activity is reserved for minor atmospherics during sports events, and they don't ever really envelop or engage the audience much. While the lossless mix doesn't really impress in any significant way, it gets the job done with good attention on character interaction.
This Blu-ray edition of 'The Damned United' comes with the same selection of supplements as its DVD counterpart. It's an attractive collection of content exploring both the movie and the real-life events that inspired it.
Based on the David Peace novel, which is itself inspired by Brian Clough's short controversial reign over Leeds United, 'The Damned United' is a surprisingly good drama about more than just the legendary football manager. With Michael Sheen's terrific performance at the center and Tom Hooper's strong direction, the film is an entertaining story about hurt egos clouding better judgment. The Blu-ray comes with a strong video, good audio, and a nice collection of supplements. Fans will be happy with the presentation. Recommended.