The Phantom of the Open
Based on a true story, this entertaining Mark Rylance-starring underdog comedy focuses on the British man dubbed "the world's worst professional golfer".
July 13, 2022
If The Phantom of the Open was part of a game of golf, rather than a movie about the club-flinging, ball-hitting, bunker-avoiding sport, it wouldn't be a hole in one. It couldn't be; perfection doesn't suit the story it's telling, which is as real and as shaggy — as so-strange-it-can-only-be-true, too — as they can possibly come. That other key factor in spiriting dimpled orbs from the tee to the cup in a single stroke, aka luck, is definitely pertinent to this feel-good, crowd-pleasing, happily whimsical British comedy, however. Plenty of it helped Maurice Flitcroft, the man at its centre, as he managed to enter the 1976 British Open despite never having set foot on a course or played a full round of golf before. It isn't quite good fortune that makes this high-spirited movie about him work, of course, but it always feels like a feature that might've ended up in the cinematic long grass if it wasn't so warmly pieced together.
When Maurice (Mark Rylance, Don't Look Up) debuts on the green at the high-profile Open Championship, it doesn't take long for gap between his skills and the professionals he's playing with to stand out. In the words of The Dude from The Big Lebowski, obviously he's not a golfer — although what makes a golfer, and whether any sport should be the domain of well-to-do gatekeepers who reserve large swathes of land for the use of the privileged few, falls into The Phantom of the Open's view. So does a breezily formulaic yet drawn-from-fact account of a man who was born in Manchester, later settled in the port town of Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria and spent much of his life as a shipyard crane operator, providing for his wife Jean (Sally Hawkins, Spencer), her son Michael (Jake Davies, Artemis Fowl), and the pair's twins Gene (Christian Lees, Pistol) and James (Jonah Lees, The Letter for the King). Maurice had never chased his own dreams, until he decided to give golfing glory a swing.
For audiences coming to all this anew, director Craig Roberts (Eternal Beauty) clues viewers in from the get-go, via a recreation of an 80s TV interview with Maurice. The film's key figure chats, looking back on his sporting efforts after his attempts at golf have clearly earned him a level of fame, but he'd also rather just sip a tea with six sugars. That's an easy but pivotal character-establishing moment. He's a cuppa-coveting everyman accustomed to finding sweetness in modest places, which aptly sums up his whole approach to his middle-aged pastime. The jovial humour of the situation — in caring more about his beloved tea than talking on the television — is also telling. Using a screenplay by Simon Farnaby (Paddington 2) based on the actor and writer's 2010 biography of Maurice, Roberts laughs along with and never at his protagonist. He affectionately sees the wannabe golfer's eccentricities, and also values the new lease on life he's eagerly seeking.
That quest starts while watching late-night TV, after Michael advises that the shipyard where both men work — and Jean as well — will be making layoffs. With Bridge of Spies Oscar-winner Rylance dripping with sincerity and never cartoonish quirkiness, Maurice eyes the game on-screen like a man having a life-altering and surreal epiphany. Befitting anyone who's ever had a sudden realisation, he's instantly convinced. That he has zero know-how, nor the cash for the right attire, equipment and membership to the local club to practice, doesn't put him off. Neither does filling out the Open entry form, where he instructs Jean to tick the 'professional' box because that's what he wants to be. On the ground at Royal Birkdale Golf Club in Southport, he swiftly attracts attention for hitting 121 — the worst score ever recorded — with the press, as well as tournament bigwigs Keith Mackenzie (Rhys Ifans, The King's Man) and Laurent Lambert (Farnaby, Christopher Robin).
"The world's worst professional golfer" gets slung Maurice's way, alongside other descriptions and titles, the movie's own moniker included. But with the competitive disco-dancing twins as his caddies, he isn't dissuaded. As seen in fellow recent comedy The Duke — another seemingly tall but genuinely true tale about an ordinary fellow battling the establishment — The Phantom of the Open becomes a caper, in fact. Maurice makes new putts at re-entering the Open aided by disguises and accents, hijinks ensue again and again, and his determination to strive for something better rarely fades. There isn't much in the way of drama amid the on-the-course larks, but some springs at home. While Jean remains supportive, as do Gene and James, Michael gets embarrassed about his dad being made a joke — and there are also financial ramifications.
As with The Full Monty, Eddie the Eagle and other thoroughly British underdog-focused stories, The Phantom of the Open earns all the terms it's striving for: nice, perky, funny, pleasant, sweet, moving and rousing, for starters. Another two that echo like a ball whacked convincingly with a club: entertaining and engaging. Roberts and Farnaby find the right mood, which recognises how ridiculous so many of the details prove — they'd be called contrived if a screenwriter had simply conjured them up — but keeps its heart with the Flitcrofts. Taking tonal cues from his best-known on-screen appearances in 2010's coming-of-age charmer Submarine and delightful streaming series Red Oaks, Roberts also appreciates how embracing a look, feel and era can shape a movie. The Phantom of the Open sees Maurice's efforts as firmly a product of the 70s, and plays up the period details everywhere it can, including on the soundtrack.
A singular real-life character, a wild series of actual events, ABBA and other upbeat needle-drops, disco contests, 70s oddities galore, all that golf, a cartful of fantastical visual flourishes, slapstick upon slapstick: throw them all together and, again, the movie equivalent of a sand trap or water hazard could've resulted. Thankfully, Roberts knows how to mould all these pieces into something affable — albeit not particularly concerned with digging too deep, let alone needing a sand wedge — and also enlists the stellar Rylance. Even when The Phantom of the Open is at its silliest, he gives an earnest and charismatic performance that can last 18 holes, no matter how many triple bogeys and worse that Maurice hits. Crucially, he plays the prankster and dreamer as someone who knows to keep tap, tap, tapping even when stuck. A narrative like this always going to draw people in, of course, as gumption-fuelled against-the-odds tales tend to, but it wouldn't keep them cheering along without Rylance's both believable and endearing stint in the argyle vest.