(Laurie Sparham/Sony Pictures Classics
Poor Michael Sheen. For every excellent performance he’s given recently, there’s been someone doing a flashier job in the same movie. In “The Queen,’’ his Tony Blair was a vision of poise and a voice of reason, but Helen Mirren got the Oscar. He was even better in “Frost/Nixon,’’ doing the opposite of what he did with Blair. His David Frost was like a Breck girl who gradually realizes that she’s more than just her hair. But all the accolades went to Frank Langella for making a loveable beast out of Richard Nixon.
Screenwriter Peter Morgan is responsible for both of those movies, as well as 2003’s “The Deal,’’ for which Sheen also played Blair. (He’s about to do so for a third time in an upcoming film Morgan has written). If Sheen keeps this Blair business up, the charisma deck will remain stacked against him.
But Morgan must be a friend. He’s finally cleared the deck for Sheen to show an audience what he can do without a co-star stealing the show.
In “The Damned United,’’ a rumbling little comedy from Morgan that Tom Hooper directed, Sheen plays the late English soccer coach Brian Clough, who in 1974 is recruited from the bottom of the professional soccer ladder to coach Leeds United, the country’s premiere team. He’s five days late for his first day on the job, taking a detour for an interview with a local news station in which he questions the professionalism of his acclaimed predecessor, Don Revie (Colm Meaney). “They’ve been champions, but they haven’t been good champions,’’ says Clough (pronounced “cluff.’’).
There’s a surprising, jesting charge to Sheen’s performance. He commands the movie with personality. The actor’s hair is done up in a small pompadour, and all his features - those big eyes, that scalene-triangle nose, and windshield of a forehead - work together to create an irresistible jerk.
Much of this fictionalized story is told through flashbacks to the six years leading up to Clough’s prestigious appointment. But the coach turns out to be so single-minded that he can’t win over the team or the fans, let alone win a match. (Clough lasted in the job for only 44 days but went on to find success with another club.) The flashbacks let Sheen mix cockiness, warmth, humor, and insecurity, as Clough, a former player, annoys his wife and connives a respectable coaching career.
The leaps in time both complicate the bluster of Sheen’s performance and take some of the air out of the movie. This is one of the few of Morgan’s scripts not to proceed chronologically, and you miss the momentum of people negotiating deadlines and trying to avert crises. Nothing feels as urgent this time. We get a vivid sense of what a character Clough was. But what kind of coach was he? (Timothy Spall plays Clough’s long-suffering number two, Peter Taylor, and he’s terrific in his huggable wombat sort of way.)
While it’s true that a couple of the characters are vivid creations, it’s hard to glean what else Morgan sees in this story, which he adapted from a novel by David Peace, besides a showcase for Sheen. Mostly, that’s enough. Hooper, the director, doesn’t include lots of amazing football sequences to upstage his star. He just moves everyone out of Sheen’s way. It’s about time.