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The Beautiful Game: The Damned United takes us back to the days before Beckham 

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The Damned United
is the well-told true story of the rapid rise and crashing fall of Brian Clough, English soccer manager, whose disastrous 44-day stint with top team Leeds United was mythologized by novelist David Peace in his 2006 book of the same title. For many, this one man's life may at first seem a rather small slice of 1970s history, but director Tom Hooper and actor Michael Sheen combine forces to present an expertly executed and involving tale of ambition, ego and self-destruction that has far-reaching appeal. This was a time before David Beckham, when footballers were idolized but a long way from becoming brands, when a player commanded a salary of only $500 a week.

Sheen has made an impact in the last few years as an amazing impressionist, though that term devalues his talent for capturing a personality. He has been Tony Blair in The Queen and David Frost in Frost/Nixon, but he seems to be pulling toward more fantastical roles lately. He played vampire royalty in New Moon, and has upcoming performance as the White Rabbit in Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland. Here, Sheen's presentation of the mouthy, arrogant, albeit gifted football manager is genuine, yet sympathetic. His adeptly twists the volume up or down on Clough, allowing his mask to slip slowly in the final scenes. There is an energy to Sheen that makes even the least easy-to-like character relatable.

While Sheen provides a theatrically big performance which commands every scene, director Hooper's sharp and intelligent framing and his decisive plot structure nip and tuck the actor's bombast to perfection. Using the space around Clough to cut him off, he artistically demonstrates the manager's detachment from reality. Early scenes of a busy family kitchen turn into shadowed glimpses of plain hotel rooms. Hooper's choice of angles and lighting provide drama within the film's generally made-for-television feel. Such a feel often hampers British productions that are characterized by rather perfunctory endings.

The relationship between Clough and his assistant manager Peter Taylor is central to the events. Their endearment, and break-up, illustrates a bromance long before the word was coined. Taylor is played with ease by the masterful character actor Timothy Spall, and as such he provides a reserved, thoughtful contrast to his manic partner. Taylor's fondness for Clough draws the audience closer to his fate. The pair start their career with unknown loser Derby County. They work hard to drive them up the league standings and they both gain notoriety with Clough fondly courting the media. The impromptu and television studio interviews give insight into the development of the sport's celebrity culture, and how that culture has come to overshadow the game.

When Clough decides to leave Derby County and take the place of long-time Leeds United leader Don Revie, Taylor decides to go his own way. After years of publicly criticizing the Leeds team for their dirty tactics and violence, the myopically ambitious, power-hungry Clough finds himself pinned down by these previous statements. The story backtracks to display the standing grudge Clough maintains against former manager Revie, from whom he feels he differs defiantly in practices and philosophy, giving us the backbone of the plot. The origin of this disdain is revealed with such heart-rending detail that even when at his most abrasive or foolish it is hard to feel harshly toward the increasingly embittered Clough. When this man finally falls, it is a testament to the talents of Hooper and Sheen that we actually will him to get back up.

The Damned United ★★★★✩

Starring Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, Colm Meaney. Directed by Tom Hooper. Written by Peter Morgan, David Peace. Rated R

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