CAST: Mark Rylance, Sally Hawkins, Rhys Ifans, Jake Davies, Christian Lees, Jonah Lees, Mark Lewis Jones, Johann Myers
RUNNING TIME: 102 mins
BASICALLY…: Maurice Flitcroft (Rylance) enters the British Open Golf Championship, and quickly gains a reputation as the sport’s worst-ever player…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Golf is certainly a tricky sport to master (and requires a hell of a lot of patience), but Maurice Flitcroft, who entered into the 1976 British Open tournament with absolutely zero past experience of even playing, made it all look so easy. The message seemed to be that if a complete novice like Flitcroft (dubbed the “Phantom of the Open” in the press) could make a go for it alongside actual professionals, then anyone could be within a chance – although they’d have to do better than Flitcroft eventually did, because to this day he’s still known as the worst golfer in existence.
It’s a story that’s fascinated writer Simon Farnaby for years, having previously co-written a biographical book about Flitcroft with Scott Murray, and now thanks to the attention he’s received by co-penning the script for the universally-adored Paddington 2, he’s finally been able to bring the story of The Phantom of the Open to the big screen, with the help of director Craig Roberts which gives it the visual panache this story deserves. The end result is a winning, charming and utterly uplifting tale of the most underdog of all underdogs, made with real love and admiration for its subject matter in the same way that Tim Burton showed mass appreciation for his own film about the Maurice Flitcroft of cinema, Ed Wood.
We are introduced to middle-aged Flitcroft (played by Mark Rylance) in the mid-1970s as a working-class shipyard crane operator and family man who, alongside his faithful wife Jean (Sally Hawkins), raises stepson Mike (Jake Davies) – a manager at said shipyard – and twin disco dancing champions Gene and James (Christian and Jonah Lees). Ever the optimist, always encouraging his kids to follow their dreams as far as they can go, Flitcroft is reasonably satisfied with his existence, until he has an epiphany one night while happening to catch a round of golf on the television: he decides to enter the British Open, despite practically no skill or anything beyond basic knowledge of the sport. Upon actually competing, he attracts attention for scoring the worst round in the tournament’s history, angering officials like Rhys Ifans’ stuffy Keith Mackenzie, whose following sanctions against Flitcroft fail to deter him from competing again under more unusual circumstances.
Although it would have been easy for writer Farnaby and director Roberts to simply use this film to point and laugh at Flitcroft’s incompetence, at no point do you ever feel like you are ironically enjoying his oddball journey. Both the writing and direction are great at making you seriously sympathise with his plight, because the character of Flitcroft is not only incredibly likeable (and anchored by a hugely endearing lead turn by Mark Rylance), but his eccentricity is rarely a source of easy comedy, except for when it needs to be and not a moment more. While his goals and methods are certainly naïve to a point, he’s not a complete idiot; he acquires strong knowledge about the sport through the numerous books he reads, and at the very least knows what types of golf clubs he needs to use in the actual tournament, so it isn’t as though he’s going into it completely unprepared. It mostly boils down to how he plays, which is unmistakably terrible, but even then the film never treats it like he’s absolutely out of his depth, with the most outlandish of strokes giving him a sense of happiness and satisfaction, which at the end of the day is what really matters to him. There is never a point where neither Farnaby nor Roberts wants you to make fun of his exploits because, like Ed Wood and Tommy Wiseau in the film world, his passion and drive (no pun intended) for the subject in both theory and practise is what carries them through, and in its own way it’s incredibly uplifting to watch.
That isn’t to say that The Phantom of the Open is completely humour-free, because it’s definitely got plenty of comedy in its bones; it just doesn’t happen to be at Flitcroft’s expense. Instead, Farnaby and Roberts find joyous moments in the circumstances that enable Flitcroft to fail upward, such as fun dialogue exchanges during Flitcroft’s initial application process, and vivid abstract visual sequences that feel like they’re right out of The Big Lebowski (surely a stylistic leftover from Roberts’ previous film as director, Eternal Beauty, which was similarly abstract in its overall nature). At the same time, the two creatives find plenty of time to examine some real human drama lying underneath the surface, particularly with what Flitcroft’s efforts are doing to his adult children, who face professional embarrassment due to how publicly he is making a fool out of himself. The filmmakers also don’t shy away from some of the very real consequences, including him and his family being forced to severely downgrade after struggling to pay bills due to Flitcroft’s lack of income from the failed golf entries. You can tell that both Farnaby and Roberts really are treating this story and central figure with a great amount of respect, because lesser writers and directors would simply have focused entirely on how badly he played golf, and not on how it seriously affects his loved ones and financial situations.
Aside from being highly entertaining and often very funny, The Phantom of the Open’s huge heart is endearing enough to be on par with even Paddington 2, which that film’s co-writer Farnaby clearly takes strong cues from in telling the tale of another British folk legend. His and director Roberts’ gentle, considerate and thoughtful approach to this stranger-than-fiction true golfing legend makes for an effective crowd-pleaser, but beyond that it does justice for the strong ambitions of a man whose ability was always in doubt, but his wide-eyed optimism never was. Even if you’ve never played a round of golf in your life (and are thus already probably better than Maurice Flitcroft), his infectious candour and sense of sportsmanship is made difficult to resist here, which goes to show that whatever one may lack in actual skill can be made up for in pure human spirit, which is what grants this wonderful movie a hole in one.
SO, TO SUM UP…
The Phantom of the Open is an incredibly endearing tale of “the world’s worst golfer” Maurice Flitcroft, not only played with severe warmth by Mark Rylance, but thanks to writer Simon Farnaby and director Craig Roberts is portrayed as a truly empathetic hero who is instantly lovable, and whose lack of golfing skills are easily overcome by its beating heart and an infectious sense of optimism that any underachiever will be extremely enamoured by.