I first saw Michael Sheen in his native England, in a 1999 National Theatre revival of John Osborne’s ”angry young man” play Look Back in Anger. I’d heard that he equaled, if not eclipsed, Richard Burton in the role of the contemptuous Jimmy Porter, and I was not disappointed. It was a spellbinding three hours in the company of a rising star. I didn’t have long to wait to see him again: A month or two later there he was on my side of the pond, ripping into Mozart in the fine Broadway revival of Amadeus.
The next time I recall seeing him was under very different circumstances. I sneaked into a showing of Underworld (2003), Kate Beckinsale’s Vampirella franchise, and, wait, who was that semi-familiar face playing Lucian, the leader of the wolfish ”Lycan” pack? Why, it was Michael Sheen. Offscreen, it wasn’t the happiest Hollywood experience; Beckinsale, his girlfriend, dumped him for the film’s director, Len Wiseman. Career-wise, though, he fell easily into the groove that all British actors do, alternating between films high and low. True to form, he recreated his driven, overreaching David Frost for the screen in Ron Howard’s adaptation of Peter Morgan’s West End and Broadway success Frost/Nixon—then, with Beckinsale and Wiseman more or less out of the picture, played Lucian again in the third Underworld film, and looks set to howl through a fourth.
Sheen’s most rewarding partnership besides Lucian has been with Tony Blair, or, rather, Morgan’s take on the ex-Prime Minister, in three films: The Deal (2003), which is more comprehensible to Americans now that Blair’s rival Gordon Brown (played by David Morrissey) is in the driver’s seat, however unsteadily, and is worth looking for on HBO; the Oscar-winning The Queen (2006); and The Special Relationship, which debuts on HBO on May 29. Sheen’s Blair, ambitious but conflicted, confident but poll-conscious, is a fascinating portrait/biopsy of a living politician and it will probably take a werewolf’s cunning to deal with Dennis Quaid’s Bill Clinton and Hope Davis’ Hillary, the latter a masterstroke of casting.
In the meantime, Morgan wrote for Sheen The Damned United, which is also on Blu-ray. The actor, who considered professional soccer (I mean, err, football) as a career, shows off a few moves in the film, but most of his histrionics are on the sidelines. David Peace’s novel fictionalizes a sliver of the life and times of Brian Clough, who won back-to-back European Cups managing Nottingham Forest in 1979 and 1980. If this were a rah-rah American movie this is the movie we would get about Clough, whose ego was so enormous Muhammad Ali commented upon it. But the British are better dramatizing failure, so the movie takes place before this triumph and instead focuses on his disastrous 44-day tenure at Leeds United, a club he publicly lambasted before taking it over from the much-loved Don Revie (Colm Meaney), who Clough hated for an earlier slight.
All this history, which was obscure to me, is excellently recounted in the DVD extras, and you might want to scan them first before watching the movie. Morgan has taken a split-level approach to his adaptation, contrasting Clough’s complete failure to motivate the winning Leeds club (which he had accused of dirty tactics) with flashbacks to his earlier bootstrapping success with the cellar-dwelling Derby County. Sheen was eager to play Clough, and he’s completely winning as the self-aggrandizing, and self-defeating, manager. The mark of a good film is finding a way to get you interested in something you never knew or cared about before, and Sheen carries the ball for The Damned United.
Not without help: Timothy Spall is a gem as his loyal, long-suffering assistant Peter Taylor, and Meaney superior but not quite smug as Revie. The film is typically Morgan in that much of it is played out in the media, in the days before big money took over the sport, and it culminates with a squirmingly funny on-air reckoning between the two managers. Economical direction by Tom Hopper (of HBO’s John Adams, and the Morgan-written Longford) emphasizes the power plays off the field, and a commentary by Hooper, Sheen, and producer Andy Harries adds context to the making of the film and the making, unmaking, and remaking of the outrageous Brian Clough.
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Cast as Derby County’s fuddy-duddy manager is Jim Broadbent, whose American career could be a cautionary tale for Sheen. Broadbent has said that receiving an Oscar nomination for Iris (2001) was the best thing to happen to his career—but that winning the award was the worst, as it immediately priced him out of the Hollywood roles that were coming his way. There’s zero chance of that happening if the 40-year-old Sheen squanders his Brit boy status on things like The Twilight Saga: New Moon. Twilight fans should be grateful that I’m looking at it through the tiny prism of Sheen’s ten-minute role as a fey vampire counsel, a chance to play for the other side of the Underworld team that he might have better avoided. With Harry Potter coming to an end, though, he may have seen this as his best chance to latch onto a young adult fantasy franchise, and I hope he had a good time with R-Pats and Kristen Stewart and some red-robed worshipers in scenic Siena and Montepulciano, Italy.
That makes one of us. Director Catherine Hardwicke brought a definite conviction to the chaste vampirism of the first one; About a Boy’s Chris Weitz, however, is going through the motions, and at 130 minutes goes through them very slowly. I’m not crazy about the superheroic monsters of Underworld but Twilight is holier than thou toward its sexless vamps and crap CGI werewolves, who spend a lot of time agonizing about not hurting anyone. The Wolfman remake was a dog that didn’t hunt yet it did give us one of the more ferocious lycanthropes since the late Spanish cult star Paul Naschy’s series of shockers from the late 60s onwards. Lucian would be embarrassed by the steroidal puppies in this flick, less scary than my neighbor’s dachshund, who when in human (or, I should say, Taylor Lautner) form fret and mope around and talk about their feelings. Which is guess is the appeal of all this to fretting, moping, feelings-filled audiences. There’s zilch here for horror fans, so I’m wondering what besides a fat paycheck drew David Slade, director of the red-meat bloodsucker tale 30 Days of Night, to the third installment this June.
For now we have a malnourished two-disc set of the sequel (also on Blu-ray) that includes a commentary by Weitz (who seems surprised that only one scene got unintended laughs from the opening night crowd) and a quisling editor who chuckles at his jokes, a handful of dozy rock videos and a not bad making-of about the whole thing. I was also sent a separate DVD documentary, Twilight in Forks: The Saga of the Real Town, which shows that the nicest people have been sucked into the black hole of this phenomenon. Memo to Michael Sheen: I get that it’s your time to mine silver from the screen, just don’t let your special relationship with more discerning viewers lapse.
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