There is a far-fetched rumour going around that next year will bring the release of a number of films not scripted by Peter Morgan. This prolific screenwriter specialises in fact embellished with conjecture, either his own (Frost/Nixon, The Queen), or adaptations of other people’s (The Last King of Scotland, The Other Boleyn Girl). His new film, The Damned United, falls into the second camp: it’s based on David Peace’s novel, which reimagines Brian Clough’s 44 tumultuous days as manager of Leeds United in 1974. Like
Peace, Morgan punctuates that downward trajectory with flashbacks to Clough’s glory days dragging Derby to the top of Division One in the early 1970s.
Praise the gods of zeitgeist, for Peace also wrote the novels on which Channel 4’s recent Red Riding trilogy was based, while Clough is played (with slightly too much camp) by Michael Sheen, Morgan’s unofficial actor-in-waiting. Tom Hooper, who directed Morgan’s Longford as well as the HBO series John Adams, is the least familiar name here, but any good things in The Damned United are largely his doing.
It was Hooper who decided to shoot the film like Performance, with unflatteringly lit, sponge-faced men harrumphing in weirdly elongated boardrooms. (If the Football Association’s conference space is as generous as it looks here, the FA might consider hiring the Royal Albert Hall for a more intimate ambience.) It was Hooper also who chose to use space to intimidate his characters. He shoots soccer stadiums from low angles, putting the players and managers firmly in their place. Scenes of Clough and his
right-hand man, Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), at the Derby training ground are composed like cross-sections: the men are squeezed into the bottom of the frame, the screen dominated by a grassy hill leading to the council houses above them, and, beyond that, the disapproving sky.
Football thereby takes its place alongside working-class life and spirituality, with Clough and Taylor almost nudged off the bottom of the screen. Hooper is canny enough not to show much of the game; maybe it’s a budgetary restraint (all those extras), or perhaps he knows that actors playing football never look like anything other than actors playing football. The pitch action is limited to snippets of archive footage, with the game expressed instead in the abstract. The mouth of the tunnel, which leads to matches that we don’t see played, is a blur of white, a celestial aperture. Unable to watch his Derby side take on Leeds, Clough hides out in his office and only realises things are looking up when the home crowd jumps to its feet in jubilation, blocking out the light streaming in through his window.
Hooper certainly thinks in more cinematic terms than Morgan, whose script purges Clough’s story of the septic intensity found in Peace’s first- and second-person narrative. That makes for a gentler work but a shallower one, with Clough’s peaks and troughs registering as no more than slight imperfections in the surface of a playing field. His campaign to outshine his predecessor at Leeds, Don Revie (Colm Meaney), was beautifully symbolised in the book when Clough hacked up and torched Revie’s desk, but Morgan makes the conflict feel parochial rather than primal. Without the masochism that Peace discerned in Clough’s time at Leeds, when he floundered without his beloved Taylor, he becomes a manager who rubbed a few footballers up the wrong way, put up with some dirty looks, then departed with a juicy settlement. For a tragedy, even a minor one, it lacks any element of the resonant, let alone the tragic.
The film milks most of its poignancy from the “marriage” between Clough and Taylor. They exchange kisses when Derby prospers, they dance together, Taylor even forces Clough to call him “baby”, the rules of on-screen male bonding safely insulated by the implied heterosexuality of football. All very cute, but what of the actual wives? True, women shouldn’t expect to have much presence in a film about men’s football, at least not until a WAGs movie appears, but that is not the same thing as being written out of your own life. Among numerous instances of support, Peace records Clough’s wife organising a female delegation to protest when Derby lets him go. From the Peter Morgan version, you would scarcely know she wasn’t joined at the hip to the kitchen stove.