Thursday, May 20, 2010

Games People Play (The Damned United and An Education)

Michael Sheen gives a career-altering performance in The Damned United, all the more surprising in that it's written by the same screenwriter who got him pigeonholed in the first place. Sheen's Brian Clough, a legendary British soccer football coach from the 1970s, lets you know immediately he's far removed from the actor's Tony Blair (in The Queen) and David Frost (Frost/Nixon), both scripted by Peter Morgan along with this one. A successful coach in Derby County, Clough accepts an offer to lead hated archrival Leeds United after his nemesis, Don Revie (a puffed-up Colm Meaney), agrees to head the nation's World Cup team. With his two kids in tow, Cough keeps the Leeds brass waiting as he holds a TV interview disparaging the iconic Revie and his team as a bunch of dirty cheaters. Sheen's onscreen plasticity is as apparent here as much as his previous films, but there's something sturdier about him this time: feet planted on the ground, voice deeper, facial expressions rolled into a cocky sneer. "We think you're the best young football coach in the country," an exasperated boss acknowledges. "Best old coach in the country, too," Cough unhesitatingly replies.

It's a lively, expansive performance, and for a while Morgan's script (based on the nonfiction book by David Peace) and Tom Hooper's direction keep you guessing exactly what kind of movie this will be. Is The Damned United an inspirational sports flick? It certainly starts that way: Cough is thrust into an unwelcome environment, largely his own design, and -- those of us not privy to the story will expect -- will beat the odds and triumph. Then things take a sudden U-turn to chronicle Cough's rise to glory as coach of the ragtag Derby County team: Will this -- the flashbacks -- be the main narrative, with the Leeds story serving as bookends? Hooper and Morgan end up parallel-plotting both Derby and Leeds threads, crosscutting to convey how Cough's failings end up undermining his formidable talents in each instance. Most of all, they state outright that Cough's put-upon, keen-eyed assistant Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), was responsible for a great deal of the success at Derby, and that Taylor's refusal to join Cough at Leeds doomed the latter's aspirations.

Spall has spent the better part of his career trapped between Harry Potter and Mike Leigh, so it's good to see him play a normal person here. Yet the Taylor/Cough relationship turns out to be what The Damned United is about after all, which wouldn't be a bad thing if Morgan's heart were in it. I've never cared for the mannered ephemera that forms the basis of his writing, but it's obviously a serious interest. Watching Morgan going all Judd Apatow -- capping with a hopelessly lame moment where Cough gets on his knees and begs Taylor to work with him again -- is excruciating. I'm half-expecting an American remake starring Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill, with the same squishy, feel-good center and tons of double entendres about "balls."

Years ago, I overheard in a coffeeshop a trio of female college undergrads endlessly razz a fourth for having a boyfriend who was a few years older than she was. "When he was a freshman in high school, you were ten!" one shrieked while the others joined in, which said more about them than the target of their scorn. I was reminded of that girl's poise by Carey Mulligan in An Education, a performance so universally and justifiably praised I have little to add beyond an affirmative nod. I also concur with David Denby's assessment of Peter Saarsgard as "an actor of major talent waiting for a major role, and he almost gets one" as David Goldman, mid-thirties paramour to Mulligan's teenage Jenny. Saargard is as charmingly voluble here as he was brilliantly subdued as prickly editor Chuck Lane in Shattered Glass. (Listening to the real Lane's audio commentary to that film, you get the impression he almost prefers his onscreen counterpart.) Also fine is Olivia Williams as a teacher with high hopes to get Jenny into Oxford, as are Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour as Jenny's well-meaning parents, concerned about her relationship with an older man yet also seduced by David's formal manners and affluent lifestyle.

Nick Hornby based his screenplay loosely on the early-60s, London-based memoir by Lynn Barber, and the theme he builds the movie around is a compelling one: Does a young woman learn more in school or in the world? Jenny's path to Oxford may ultimately liberate her, yet it's an awfully dull stretch to get there; whereas being with David opens her range of experiences culturally, economically and sexually, but would it limit her options, in the end, to become the wife of such a man? The Danish filmmaker, Lone Scherfig, keeps An Education humming along so pleasurably that you almost don't notice that her movie drops the very stakes it's raising. I'm unclear if it's Scherfig or Hornby who doesn't offer enough social context. For example, when Jenny's parents so willingly hand off their daughter to David, that it's because they're a product of an environment that did that sort of thing, instead of being merely obtuse.

There is a more troubling issue along these same lines, and that is the movie's attitude toward Judaism. A big deal is made over the fact that David is Jewish, followed quickly by an even bigger deal that it's not a big deal. The headmistress at Jenny's school (a clipped Emma Thompson) is depicted as a Jew-hating gorgon, only to have her worldview seemingly validated when it's revealed that David is a moneygrubber and a cad. Before seeing An Education, I'd thought that charges of antisemitism were a little over-the-top. Now, I have to admit that they make a stronger case than any counterarguments so far. (One of these -- suggesting that because David is a liar, how do we know he's not lying about being Jewish? -- is easily the most dubious.) An Education is ultimately so reductive that I'm willingly to believe that its makers were simply oblivious to their own implications. That's still a disappointing irony in a movie that's supposed to be about opening your eyes to the complexities of the world.


Edward Copeland said...

Sarsgaard has been so good in so many things for so long, it's a shame he hasn't received more recognition. In addition to his great work in Shattered Glass which you mentioned, I still think his was the best performance in Boys Don't Cry.

Jason Bellamy said...

An Education, for all its formula and faults (particularly the last 10 minutes), was one of my top five films of last year. It's utterly charming, and I don't think that's a lesser achievement (not that you imply otherwise).

As for the whole anti-Semitism debate. A few months back, Dennis Cozzalio took a pretty hard stance on the issue and I responded in the film's defense. If you're interested, you can see us trading lengthy thoughts in the comments section. I think we both make good points.

Craig said...

Thanks for the link, Jason. That is an excellent debate between you and Dennis, and I'll limit my thoughts to one or two so as not to take you down the same road all over again.

In one of your comments you ask Dennis (I'm paraphrasing) if David's being a womanizer, a petty thief and ("in some sense") a child predator are Jewish stereotypes? Well, yes, as a matter of fact, they are, as any piece of Nazi propaganda makes clear. An Education isn't as crude as all of that (or Mel Gibson) but in its light and airy way it's saying the same thing, rather than observing the behavior. I think the movie is a con-job, as charming as David and ultimately as disingenuous.

Your other point, about the "waterfall theory," is interesting, but for me it's not where the river takes you than whether it expands or contracts. A good coming-of-age story always leaves the protagonist with a wiser and more complex view of the world. Look at Adventureland, where Jesse Eisenberg learns to accept Kristen Stewart despite her faults and even comes to understand Ryan Reynolds's caddish behavior as concealing a deep sadness and regret. Or Robert De Niro's fine A Bronx Tale, where the young hero realizes that his mentor, an Italian gangster, was a criminal and a killer, but also a person who taught him something about life. David gets no such empathy in An Education: he's just dropped from the picture altogether. And I'm not left with the impression that Jenny is a more mature person for having her experiences. Rather, the message seems to be: "Whew, that was a close one!"