The Phantom of the Open – movie review

I tend to agree with Mark Twain when he (supposedly) described golf as “a good walk ruined”. While the quote is likely apocryphal, the sentiment is understandable – the world seems to be split into golf lovers and golf haters, with few in the middle. But whatever its shortcomings, golf provides the perfect setting for Craig Roberts’ unerringly charming comedy, The Phantom of the Open.

The film uses the well-worn sports movie trope of the plucky underdog trying to compete at the highest level (think Cool Runnings, or the recent Eddie the Eagle). What distinguishes this film is Roberts’ sincere empathy for his characters, which shines through every frame.

Our hero is Maurice Flitcroft (Mark Rylance). He’s a crane driver who works at the Vickers shipyard in the grim town of Barrow-in-Furness. He lives with his very patient wife Jean (Sally Hawkins) and his energetic twin sons Gene (Christian Lees) and James (Jonah Lees). An older son, Michael (Jake Davies) is a manager at the same shipyard. But it’s 1975 and things are changing. Shipbuilding in Britain is in decline and the prospect of mass redundancies looms. Although Maurice is well-liked by his workmates, his eccentricities grate on management, particularly Gerard Hopkins (Steve Oram) who has a say in the redundancy process.

Just when it seems things are looking down, Maurice flicks on the TV to see Tom Watson win the British Open. Despite never having picked up a golf club before, Maurice is entranced. He buys a set of golf clubs and starts to practice, but without proper training or being a member of a club, he can’t really gauge how good or bad he is. Undeterred, he fills in the form to enter the 1976 British Open. Following a series of misunderstandings, he ticks the box for “professional”. When the rather mangled form arrives at St Andrews, the stuff-shirt director of the Open, Keith McKenzie (Rhys Ifans) opines that no one would say they were a professional when they weren’t. So Maurice is granted entry. In the first qualifying round, he shoots 121. Media coverage of the event declares him “the world’s worst golfer”. Maurice however won’t accept defeat, leading to extraordinary measures being taken against him – and he taking even more extraordinary measures to circumvent them.

Simon Farnaby and Scott Murray wrote a biography of Flitcroft (also titled The Phantom of the Open) in 2017, and Farnaby has adapted the book for the screen. He provides the film’s best moment with the pivot that happens late in the film. The script also deftly delves into the social history of Britain in the late 20th Century, a history that sometimes isn’t pretty. But don’t think this is a glum movie – in fact, audiences are just about guaranteed to walk out with a smile.

The other big plus for this film is its cast. I mean, with Mark Rylance (Don’t Look Up) and Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water) in the leads, Roberts could hardly go wrong, but both deliver winning performances. Rhys Ifans (The King’s Man) – doing a passable Scottish accent – adds a sharp note as the by-the-rules McKenzie. Jake Davies (Artemis Fowl) impresses as Michael, and has to do a lot of the emotional heavy lifting in the final act. And real-life identical twins Christian and Jonah Lees sparkle (literally) as Gene and James.

Without knowing for sure, I suspect The Phantom of the Open presents a rather romanticised portrayal of Maurice Flitcroft. But historical accuracy isn’t really the point here. This is a feel-good movie, and it certainly made me feel good.

David Edwards

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