If you’re an American and you know that English football has nothing to do with pigskins and fourth downs, then that’s as much as you need to enjoy this vivid, affectionately prickly film, which takes place in the years up to and including the 1974 Football League season. Oscar-nominated screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Deal, The Queen, Frost/Nixon) teams up with actor Michael Sheen for the fourth time, in their fourth snapshot-of-history film.
Sheen plays Brian Clough, an egomaniacal superstar coach from the lower divisions, who takes charge of the upper-division hotshot team Leeds United. He does this mainly as a way to spite his older rival, Don Revie (Meaney), who had previously coached the team to victory. (Revie once failed to shake Clough’s hand before a match.) Timothy Spall turns in a great supporting performance as Clough’s right-hand man Peter Taylor, who wants no part of this petty revenge.
Director Tom Hooper, a BBC veteran, does the script proud with his strikingly gritty wide-screen compositions and clear, concise cutting. Even his occasional flourishes with deliberately striking angles pay off; they tend to corroborate the emotional content of the scene. In one scene, Clough waits and smokes in his office during a tense match; the light comes in from high windows, and the rest of the office is bathed in blacks and browns, with cigarette smoke swirling in-between; Hooper increasingly tilts and skews the angles as the suspense builds.