Directed by: Craig Roberts
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classic
Written by Patrick Hao
The United Kingdom has a long history of films depicting working-class folk heroes sticking it to the stiff upper lip of aristocracy. Just this year, North America saw the release of “The Duke,” in which a working-class cab driver decides to hold a painting hostage so that old folks can have a free BBC TV license. “The Phantom of the Open” belongs in the long lineage of these films that include “The Full Monty,” “Eddie the Eagle,” “One Chance,” and “Dream Horse.” Instead of stripping, Olympic ski jumping, or race horsing, “The Phantom of the Open,” is about golf.
The film follows Maurice Flitcroft (Mark Rylance), a chain-smoking shipyard operator who tries to instill in his children to continue chasing their dreams. He puts that mantra into effect when, at the age of 45, he decides to enter the 1976 British Open as a professional golfer, despite never playing golf before. He is not an idiot savant as he scores 121, or 49 over par, the worst score in the history of the tournament. Of course, the stuffy head of the British Open, Keith Mackenzie (Rhys Ifans), believes this is a mockery of the sport and bans Flitcroft, leading to a Flitcroft donning amusing disguises and submitting fake paperwork to enter subsequent tournaments. Mackenzie quickly becomes the Tom to Flitcroft’s Jerry. His accomplice along the way is his supportive wife, Jean Flitcroft, whose underwritten nature is buoyed by the always charming Sally Hawkins.
Directed by Craig Roberts (the lead actor from the 2010 film “Submarine” if you want to feel old) and written by “Paddington 2” scribe Simon Farnaby, this film has its share of moments of twee to support Flitcroft’s folksy words of wisdom. Stylistic flourishes such as paper stars and dream sequences come so infrequently that they counter the otherwise down-to-earth nature of the film.
Some suspension of disbelief is necessary, despite this being a true-to-life tale. The Flitcroft that is presented is one of childlike naivete. He is almost a Paddington-like character in his charm and goodness, constantly repeating the mantra, “Practice is the road to perfection.” Rylance’s conception of Flitcroft is almost alien-like. His airy nature and thick accent separate him from the rest. It’s a tic-heavy, capital A acting performance that constantly oscillates between charming and grating.
Flitcroft’s working-class innocence is juxtaposed by his adopted son, a child his wife had before their marriage, who is making his way up the corporate ladder and is slightly embarrassed by his working-class roots. While this good-natured man going up against The Man with strictures and rules is amusing, it becomes increasingly frustrating how the film refuses to interrogate Flitcroft’s obsession with gold. The film only goes as deep as showing him becoming bewitched by Tom Watson’s 1975 performance, an unsatisfying origin story if there ever was one. That is not to say that the film should be a Herzogian treatise on man’s obsessions with perfection in sport. Rather, that a hint of insight might go a long way.
Just as frustrating is the relationship between Maurice and his wife Jean. While the love and adoration between the two is sweet, once again there is a lack of interrogation to Jean’s support of her husband. There is nothing worse than the nagging wife trope, but at a certain point, the film needs Jean to rise beyond the single note of silent supporter. Any waft of interiority comes from behind the eyes of Sally Hawkins as she’s watching her husband on the television.
It is clear that the goal of “The Phantom of the Open” is to make a crowd-pleasing sports film about “the worst golfer in the world.” It is a perfectly affable film that is as disposable as rice paper. If anything the film is as pleasant as an afternoon playing mini-golf.
“The Phantom of the Open” Trailer
“The Phantom of the Open” is in limited rolling theatrical release.