I have been a little unwell over the last twenty-four hours so, in lieu of being able to write anything myself, I wrapped our usual cartoonist Ted Carter in mittens, a warm scarf and his favourite duffle coat, and sent him to the cinema to watch the film version of “David Peace’s novel, The Damned United”. He came back with this report and a drawing at the same time. With a bit of luck, normal service will resume tomorrow.
David Peace described his 2006 book The Damned Utd “another fiction, based on another fact”. Tom Hooper’s film The Damned United, out on general release last Friday, is probably best described as based on another fiction, based on another fact. The 93 minute film is altogether brighter and breezier than the book, dealing much less with the psychological darkness or the beginnings of Clough’s slide into alcoholism and focusing instead on the Brian Clough of legend.
In fact, it is most unhelpful to try and think of the film in terms of comparison to the book. The film could not possibly hope to match the breadth or texture of Peace’s extraordinary text. Rather than Raging Bull, then, this film is better described as Moby Dick – the story of Brian Clough’s all-encompassing, damaging, obsession with beating Don Revie and beating Leeds United. To that end, it touches on certain aspects of the book, but as much as anything it is more of a period piece, a précis of the classic Clough era. Elements of the book form the basis of the narrative drive, but Hooper is just as concerned with giving the people Clough by the barrelful.
To this end, The Damned United is carried as much by the Clough aphorisms that virtually everyone – football fan or not – knows. His chat show performances are recreated, as is his legendary berating of his Derby team during a training session. For anyone going in expecting a filmic exploration of Peace’s book, such populist extravagances could seem tacked on. The fact that they don’t is largely due to the fact they are carried off without missing a beat and by an actor, Michael Sheen, who in years relatively reasonably past would have been burnt as a witch.
If this film, then, is more of a film about Brian Clough than about the book, it is a film about the extraordinary performance of Michael Sheen. Much has been said and written about it already, so suffice to say that it is as exceptional as everyone says. Anyone who saw him as Kenneth Williams in the BBC’s Fantabulosa! will probably be unsurprised by this. However, his performance goes beyond his accurate capturing of Clough’s sound, manner or gesture. Sometimes it is not too much of a leap of imagination to think it’s the real thing. His supporting cast couldn’t really possibly hope to compete, but it would be unfair to not give a mention to Colm Meaney’s turn as Don Revie, the film’s pantomime villain. If the Academy Awards were held in Keighley, Sheen would win an Oscar.
All things considered, The Damned United is a decent, diverting film which it is well worth watching. However, if you can’t scrape together the £7 to do so, HMV are currently selling the novel for £4 in their high street stores. My recommendation would be to experience both, preferably with the film before the book. If you can only do one or the other, though, save three quid and get the book. But get Michael Sheen to read it to you.