The establishment seems more firmly established in England than anywhere else. Two terrific new British films depict prodigiously intelligent characters who challenge entrenched English institutions and nearly outsmart themselves along the way. The protagonists of the soccer movie The Damned United and the coming-of-age romance An Education fit in the rebellious, angry young man tradition of English drama — although Michael Sheen’s Brian Clough isn’t exactly young, and Carey Mulligan’s Jenny is most definitely not a man. Both learn the lesson that pride goeth before a fall.
The Damned United ostensibly recounts the David-and-Goliath rivalry between soccer division cellar-dwellers Derby County and England’s crowning team, Leeds United. Rather than focus on triumph-of-the-underdog clichés, screenwriter Peter Morgan cuts back and forth between Clough (Derby's manager) leading the team from obscurity to soccer glory beginning in 1968, to Clough, flush with victory, taking over as Leeds’ manager in 1974. Morgan wrote The Queen and Frost/Nixon (which also starred Sheen) and ignores biopic stereotypes in lieu of small but telling historical tipping points.
The Damned United is no more “just” a sports movie than Amadeus is just a film about classical music. Through Clough’s obsessive, bridge-burning behavior, Damned explores a dirty little secret about ambition: Sometimes great achievements are spurred by petty grudges. Love of the game doesn’t just drive Clough, but a compulsion to show up beloved Leeds manager Don Revie (Colm Meaney under a protoplasmic hairpiece) for trivial slights. Clough’s increasingly provocative behavior improves Derby’s performance on the field, but also outrages the sporting world and alienates Clough from everyone. Even his long-suffering coaching partner Peter Taylor (lovably lumpish Timothy Spall), who provides Clough with his winning strategies, is included among the estranged.
Sheen gives a career-best performance as the hilariously brash and self-destructive Clough, who discovers he can’t simply switch off his resentment for Leeds once he takes over the team. Sheen laces his perpetual boyishness with a charismatic insolence. Hilarious and as efficiently uncomplicated as a classic short story, The Damned United also sports the most intriguing title of the year. In soccer history books, Clough will be forever united to his rival Revie and his “work wife” Taylor.
Like Clough, An Education’s 16-year-old Jenny tends to be the smartest person in the room. It’s a credit that the film presents a straight-A student as an adolescent budding beauty and not a stereotypical ugly duckling in 1961. Her father (the richly comic Alfred Molina) fusses over Jenny as an Oxford University applicant, but she finds a dashing distraction in David (Peter Sarsgaard), a slick older gent who chats her up. David charms Jenny and her parents in short order and begins squiring her about glamorous, sophisticated nightspots.
Jenny discovers the adult world to be more liberating and less forbidding than she imagines. She takes an increasingly skeptical view of her future choices as either a put-upon housewife or a university-taught drudge like her severe-but-caring teacher (Olivia Williams) or her school’s imperious headmistress (Emma Thompson). At times made up like a young Audrey Hepburn, Mulligan conveys both the naiveté and self-assurance of youth. As her romance with David heats up, Jenny apprehends the power of her sexuality, even as a virgin. Sarsgaard makes David increasingly enigmatic: We know he’s skeevy, but just how skeevy is he?
Written by High Fidelity author Nick Hornby and based on Lynn Barber’s memoir, An Education fizzes with the kind of witty dialogue and exuberant scenes that give romantic comedies a good name. As a proto-feminist character study, it’s somewhat disappointing: A plot twist removes much of Jenny’s freedom of choice and seems to punish her for being uppity. Like The Damned United's Clough, Jenny receives an education in the consequences of speaking truth to the powers that be. Both characters reveal the wide gulf between being smart and being wise.