Guest Blogger: United Review

Jill Coleman is our guest blogger for this week, below she reviews David's recent drama, United:

On the 6th February 1958 a tragedy took place that changed the whole of sporting history. A plane carrying Matt Busby and the Manchester United first team, along with some staff, friends and supporters, crashed as it made its third attempt to take off from a snowbound runway. Twenty-three of the forty-four people on board the plane died, including eight players. Yet, incredibly, up until now, no dramatisation has been made of these events and the journey that Manchester United had to make to recover from those devastating losses.
It is a huge story to tell, and one that requires a great deal of sensitivity, but this is what writer Chris Chibnall and director James Strong have managed to achieve, producing what is described by Peter Salmon, director of BBC North, ahead of this screening as “a compassionate and moving drama, a fitting tribute for the Busby Babes”. Chibnall has narrowed focus to tell a couple of stories, that of Assistant Manager Jimmy Murphy (played here by David Tennant) and his young protégé Bobby Charlton (Jack O’Connell). Arguably this is at the expense of other equally dramatic tales, but Chibnall and Strong are careful to explain that to try to tell the accounts of everyone involved would have been to dilute the impact.
The drama opens with a slow pan over a pristine snowy vista which quickly becomes littered with debris: discarded playing cards, broken strapping, items of clothing, with splashes of blood and patches of flame to add to the increasing dread. Then the camera arrives at the somewhat surreal spectacle of a pair of airplane seats, standing upright in the snow, with two figures still belted in place. One of these, the injured Bobby Charlton, regains consciousness and starts to realise the horror of what has just happened to him.
Flashback two years: the young Manchester United team is at the height of their success and popularity. It is a world away from the glossy, monied footballing culture that we are used to today. On a weekly wage of around £15, the players lodge together in the same boarding house, they drink and smoke and take part in late night snooker sessions, while their kit is plain and free of player names and sponsors’ logos. Mark Jones, played with swagger By Thomas Howes, puffs happily on a pipe seconds before running out onto the pitch for a first division match. There is a sense of great camaraderie and also of undying loyalty, not only to one another but also to their management team of Murphy, coach Bert Whalley and the boss himself, Matt Busby. In this world Jack O’Connell’s Bobby Charlton is somewhat of an ingénue, idolising his great friend Edwards while agonising over his inability so far to make the first team.
David Tennant as the patient mentor to the young talent is an actor known for his indifference to football, but he succeeds in portraying Murphy as a man oozing with passion for the game and the club, a man far happier on the field than in the boardroom. It is Murphy who spots the potential of the young Charlton and urges him to improve his skills until he meets the standards demanded of the great Busby and earns his rightful club position. But even on his first team debut, Bobby is still wracked with doubts. “What am I doing here?” he mutters in the tunnel ahead of his first team debut against Charlton. And still, Jimmy Murphy is behind him, encouraging, driving him forward: “You’re ready. I wish I was you right now”
Dougray Scott puts in a powerful and imposing performance as club manager Busby, nailing his voice and mannerisms, to inspire awe and respect from his players and staff alike. He stands up to the FA, determined that the club can balance both domestic and European commitments. It is his ambition for success and his determination to prove the suits wrong that leads to the chartering of a flight for that fateful return flight from Belgrade. Scott strove for honesty in the role and it shows, with a believable and subtle portrayal of a man who was a hero to so many
The crash itself is beautifully shot, the perfect demonstration of the old adage “Less Is More”. The team board on the outward journey like young pop stars and there is a sense of ambition and joy, of light-hearted banter and jokes. By the time that the plane embarks on its final take-off attempt, the smiles and jokes have evaporated to be replaced by apprehension; as the plane starts to shake itself apart we just see the great heroes as they are: a group of frightened young men, their fate hanging in the balance. And as every great director of the horror or thriller genres know, real terrors lie in the imagination. Yet it is still impossible to look at the screen at this moment.
Jack O’Connell ably shows a despairing Bobby, now torn apart by his disbelief that this could happen, that lives are destroyed, changed forever in a few seconds. “I just play football!” he screams at German medics, “And now people are dead! Of course I’m not alright!”. As he says farewell to his friend Edwards, he also tries to say farewell to the game itself, clearing his room of football trophies and memorabilia and turning his back on his mentor Murphy. But for all the words of support and encouragement from those around him it takes a simple grass roots moment to reignite the flame of his passion for the game.
For Jimmy Murphy this was a time of huge pressure. Forced into the spotlight he had to take on the role of club leader, but also be a sympathizer, a mentor, a mourner, dealing with families, press and fans in the same dignified manner. David Tennant is masterful at portraying this level of growing but repressed emotion. It is a beautifully understated performance, his eyes swimming with grief, a mere twitch of the muscles around his mouth enough to indicate the utter psychological strain that Murphy must have been suffering in the days following the crash. When the barrier finally breaks, the man who has provided so much support to others is alone, on the grey concrete stairwell of a German hospital, sorrow pouring out of him in ugly, jagged sobs. And then, Murphy plasters back on his stoical face and carries on. He is forced to play roles that he has hitherto been happy to avoid, opposing the board’s threat to disband the club with his belief that they could, in fact, should go on. Moreover, Jimmy is determined to bring Bobby back to the fold, refusing to allow him to throw away his talent and passion “Don’t be another one who died out there” he urges Charlton as both struggle to find their path back to the world they once loved.
Incredible performance piles upon incredible performance in the aftermath of the disaster. Dean Andrews gives a solid portrayal of coach Bert Whalley, completing the training team along with Murphy. Ben Peel, as Harry Gregg, the abrasive goalkeeper turned hero becomes a rock to the club and to Bobby, determined to encourage the younger man to shake off the ghosts of the past. Rising star Sam Claflin is inspiring as Duncan Edwards: an idol to many who, like so many of his collegues, had his life so cruelly and senselessly cut short. Melanie Hill is sympathetic as Bobby’s mother while club secretary Kate Ashfield provides practical and emotional support to Murphy as he struggles to piece the team back together to honour the remaining fixtures. Peter Gunn, in little more than a cameo, is incredibly moving in a tear jerking scene as he prepares to stand vigil over the coffins of the deceased players. He is the everyman, the Manchester citizen, someone who watched these players every Saturday from the terraces and now watches over them in death, stating his intention to a silent, choked Murphy.
It’s not all sorrow and darkness. There are plenty of moments of humour. Tim Healy and Bill Fellows as Bobby’s beer-swilling relatives provide welcome light relief from the grim events, while scenes of United hopefuls training as Jimmy looks to build a team from whoever is available also raise a smile
The production design of the film is worthy of mention, with exquisite attention to period detail, and the film is shot on HD cameras but using vintage lenses to give an authentically dated look. Overall colours are muted, natural greys and shades of brown, which give way to the startling red of the United kit.
Finally, the film is complemented by a hauntingly atmospheric score by Clint Mansell, subtle enough to enhance an emotional response rather than prescribing it.
Overall, it is a powerful and moving drama, and one that does not require any knowledge of or interest in football to appreciate. Yes, it is an historical account, but moreover it is a celebration of the strength of the human spirit in the face of the most appalling tragedy.