You've never won anything fairly

When I was in London in March, I had a conversation with my friend Tom1 about the big-screen adaptation of David Peace’s hugely acclaimed novel The Damned United. We played the parts of one of the film’s producers2 and an American studio executive. The role-playing went something like this:

American studio executive (ASE): So what have you got?
Damned United Producer (DUP): Well, it’s a British film about soccer.
ASE: Ugh. Well, Bend It Like Beckham did well enough. Go on.
DUP: This one is set in the mid-70s. In northern England.
ASE: …
DUP: It’s a biopic, about Brian Clough.
ASE: Who?
DUP: One of the greatest managers of the 70s and 80s. You know! Ol’ Big ‘Ead.
ASE: Never heard of him.
DUP: The guy from Frost/Nixon is in it!
ASE: (Momentarily interested) Frank Langella?
DUP: No, the other dude.
ASE: Oh.3
DUP: Did I mention, there are no women involved.
ASE: Thanks for coming by. We’ll… uh, we’ll call you. Good luck with that.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a harder film to market in the United States. I caught it today, and try as I might, it’s hard to detach it from the novel, which is terrific and dark and gets deep into Clough’s neuroses and psychoses. The film strips most of that away, and what remains is a solid story of a man addled by ambition and principle. It’s hard to talk about the film without getting into football philosophy, so I’ll try and keep it brief. Cloughy believed in playing attractive football and as an Arsenal fan, I can relate. In Arsene We Trust and such. His nemesis, Don Revie, succeeded at Leeds by having his player kick lumps out of each other and worse, once refused to shake Clough’s hand after a match.

Performances in the film are uniformly great, with Timothy Spall and Stephen Graham as standouts. Sheen himself didn’t work any miracles for me – maybe it’s because I’m only familiar with Clough as an older man and didn’t know him in 1974.4 As a debut feature, this was good stuff from John Adams director Tom Hooper – there was a nice combination of archived footage, the voice of Barry Davies, and Bowie5 over the credits. There’s definitely a gravity that the book had, that this doesn’t have. But the look and feel of the 70s, the sodden pitches, the ugliness of the game – and the players – come across very well.

I don’t think you have to be a football fan to really enjoy this film, though that’s easy for me to say, so hopefully it’ll catch on here in the States. But I wouldn’t put any money on it.

1 Not the Tom I mentioned in a previous post, but another Tom. What? I know a lot of Toms. Get over it.
2 For some reason, I played the producer as a bumbling, effete, Hugh Grant in Four Weddings type.
3 The suit actually thought the producer meant Oliver Platt, but that’s neither here nor there.
4 Or anyone, for that matter, for another nine years.
5 ‘Queen Bitch’, since you ask.


Simon said...

His nemesis, Don Revie, succeeded at Leeds by having his player kick lumps out of each other...

This is something of a myth, perpetuated by Revie's enemies (and the Northern-phobic London press). That Leeds side could certainly mix it when needed, but they were also one of the finest football sides ever produced in this country and the dominant team of that era, as almost universally attested to by their contemporaries. Consider:

While the performances are very good in the TDU, the casting leaves something to be desired. The actor playing Norman Hunter, PFA Players' Player of the Year 1974, has man boobs. Stephen Graham is an excellent actor, but he's not even an approximate facsimile of Billy Bremner. Given that the producers found an athletic-looking actor to play Dave Mackay (some 8 years Bremner's senior), the limitations of the casting pool can scarcely be considered a plausible excuse. Consider the respective portrayals of Mackay & Bremner in the film and then consider this famous picture of the real-life pair squaring up:
It's about as sensible as having Eddie Murphy play Thierry Henry, to choose an Arsenal example for you.

The intent of the producers seemed to be to portray that Leeds United side, the reigning English league champions, as a set of unfit, overweight cloggers. It's a shame.

Louise | said...

LOL at the role-play! :D
It was that bad, huh?
Bend it like Beckham was great though.

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