‘United’ review

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Based on the real life events pre and post the 1958 Munich air crash that saw eight of the Manchester United football team lose their lives, United is a one-off feature-length drama from BBC Two starring Doctor Who‘s David Tennant and Mission Impossible II actor Dougray Scott.

The two actors play coach Jimmy Murphy and manager Matt Busby respectively; two men who formed the legendary “Busby Babes”, the youngest side ever to win the Football League. Also featured is Bobby Charlton, played by Jack O’Connell (Skins), who is mentored by Murphy into the first team.

United focuses its attention on events directly leading up to the disaster, where we witness the wonderful camaraderie between the footballers and their “bosses”, the event itself and then the aftermath which saw Jimmy Murphy rebuild the team and, more importantly, the spirit of Manchester United.

The crash scene itself is an horrific imagining of the final moments for those who lost their lives. Anyone who has flown will feel sick to their stomach as the plane lurches and groans, failing to take off for the third time. It’s realised with style and impact by Doctor Who and Hustle director James Strong. In fact, the whole piece is incredibly well shot and would not look out of place gracing the big screen at your local multiplex; so vivid are the colours, characters and the evocative settings of 1950s England. A veritable cinematic treat on your telly.

Also worthy of a mention is the incredibly moving score from Clint Mansell (Moon, Requiem For A Dream) which sympathises so many tearful and painful moments throughout the ninety minutes. There’s even a specially-recorded song (Paul Weller’s ‘Devotion’) during the end credits which will require further visits to the tissue dispenser.

But the story is very much told through the vastly talented and hugely engaging ensemble cast, with many familiar faces popping up, even if just for a brief moment on the screen (Benidorm‘s Tim Healy, for example). O’Connell’s Charlton is likeable, if ever so slightly too innocent, whereas Scott’s Busby is a gruff stone with a Scottish accent, though powerfully present in every scene he inhabits.

United‘s heart, however, is undoubtedly David Tennant’s Jimmy Murphy and so many of the most memorable scenes feature the former Time Lord. As the coach visits the hospital and the survivors he breakdowns on his own in grief, mirroring our own sadness at the numerous deaths. Tennant continues to activate the tear ducts as he leads his new team out to the FA Cup final and he sees the faces of those he lost alongside those who lived. It’s devastatingly emotional stuff.

Writer Chris Chibnall (Torchwood) has created a wonderful collection of characters in the midst of genuinely heartbreaking tragedy; mixing real life trauma with a dash of Hollywood sentiment. Those with no knowledge of the Munich air crash and the unfolding events will have their gobs veritably smacked by the disaster and its legacy, while those who are aware will marvel at the production’s tribute to the fallen and those who overcame such palpable grief.

It’s rare that such an emotional and visual, not to mention cinematic, delight is laid bare before your eyes on the small screen and United is that rarity. Its beauty and winning spirit will guarantee a thoughtful and memorable watch, alongside affecting and touching performances. It’s a fitting testament to the soul of mankind.

Airs at 9pm on Sunday 24th April 2011 on BBC Two.