Thursday, February 3, 2011

A Pre "Speech" Success

This time of year when movie awards are a big part of the discussion on film, there's always the tradition of looking back on the work of certain individuals that are up for Oscars and/or other acclaim. It's certainly true with Tom Hooper, director of The King's Speech. Hooper just took top honors at the Directors Guild of America awards and suddenly everyone knows his name - you understand, he's the latest overnight sensation.

I took a look at his resumé and discovered he directed a little film called The Damned United last year; this a BBC production, so it was produced on a moderate budget. I decided to watch the film, given its highly favorable reviews and see what themes Hooper carried over into The King's Speech.

The Damned United is set in the world of English soccer - make that football, lads - and it's about the story of Brian Clough, one of the most successful and controversial team managers over the past 40 years. The film documents the triumphs and failures of Clough on and off the pitch and it's a nicely crafted look at the obsession of one man who will only do things his way.

The story revolves around Clough as manager of a second division team from Derby and how he takes them from the bottom of the standings to the top; as they win the division, they are promoted to the first division where they will battle the finest teams in the country. The club everyone wants to beat at this time (the mid 1970s) is Leeds and we watch Clough prepare his team for their matches with that foe.

The story is told not chronologically, but jumps from one stage in Clough's career to the next. The film opens in 1974 when Don Revie, the manager of Leeds leaves to take that position with the national team, which failed that year to qualify for the World Cup. As Leeds had won the FA cup, he was the first choice to take over the national squad. With his departure, Leeds needed a new manager and Clough, fresh off a 1973 championship with Derby, seemed to be the natural successor.

But Clough who is a proud, stubborn man, gets things off on the wrong foot by insulting Revie at an opening press conference. He claims that Leeds was a dirty team, that Revie had fostered that type of play from his squad and that their championships were, in effect, tainted. Clough tells his players to forget Revie and to listen only to him from that moment on.

But Leeds gets off to a slow start under Clough in 1974 and soon the players and management are at odds with Clough. How things are resolved is one of the main plot lines in the film.

Another is the wonderful relationship Clough has with his assistant at Derby, Peter Taylor. As self-consumed as Clough is, Taylor is self-effacing and easy going. Their contrasts in personality make for a great partnership and it is also at the foundation of their behavior when they are split up after the are fired from Derby (I won't go into the details of the rest of the narrative, but suffice it to say there are a few surprises.)

It's the personal struggle of Clough that lifts this film above the ordinary sports film. Hooper includes film clips of a few of the matches and they're neat to watch, but it's his in-the-face look at Clough's obsessive drive that hammers home the message here. This is not just win at all costs; rather it's win and do it my way. Clough could never stand Revie, so when he takes over Leeds, he has to change everything about their ways.

As Clough, Michael Sheen is marvelous, delivering a charismatic, quite natural performance. There's never a false moment and there's no emoting, even when he's rallying the troops. He keeps his head high, even at the darkest moments and he's never at a loss for words when insulting others (which happens often in this film). Clough is a remarkable man, one who never doubts he is in the right and Sheen plays him with the proper amount of bravado as well as a touch of subtlety.

Thus The Damned United served as a nice warmup for Tom Hooper and his work on The King's Speech . Both films deal with an historical British figure: Clough in United and King George VI in Speech and both are obsessed with overcoming a major hurdle in his life. Both also deal with the unusual friendships each man enjoyed: Clough with his assistant Taylor and the King with his speech therapist, Lionel Logue. Both man have their angry moments with their best friend, but each values their work and in the end, realizes how their success depends on that other ally in life.

Take a look at The Damned United when you get a chance. British football may be the subject, but the personal emotions are universal.

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