Review: The Phantom of the Open — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

Mark Rylance stars in the real-life tale of an underdog golfer who turns the British establishment on its head.

Mark Rylance as Maurice Flitcroft (Photo by Nick Wall)
Mark Rylance as Maurice Flitcroft (Photo by Nick Wall)

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The Phantom of the Open

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Rating: PG-13

Run Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

Stars: Mark Rylance, Sally Hawkins

Writer: Simon Farnaby

Director: Craig Roberts

 

Everybody loves an underdog story — but the British, boy, they really love an underdog story.

Maybe it has to do with the nation’s centuries of strict class structure, but in movies from Billy Elliot to Eddie the Eagle to The Full Monty, the Brits seem to like nothing better than a tale of someone overcoming the odds to prevail against social norms.

Well, they don’t come any more underdoggy than The Phantom of the Open, the true story of Maurice Flitcroft, a middle-aged crane operator from the West of England who — despite never having played a single round of golf in his life — managed to land himself a spot in the 1976 British Open.

Mark Rylance, that most congenial of screen actors, stars as Flitcroft, a blue-collar bloke who, facing layoffs at the docks, happens to catch a golf tournament on the telly one night and finds himself transfixed. Then and there, Flitcroft decides he will become a professional golfer.

And his first tournament, he tells his friends at work, will be nothing less than the world’s most legendary golf event, The British Open.

So Flitcroft does two things: He sends an entry form to the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews…and he buys a cheap set of clubs.

A series of bureaucratic oversights inadvertently lands him a slot in the qualifying rounds, but Flitcroft can’t catch a break when it comes to actually playing the game. At one public course after another, his loud argyle sweaters and working class manners get him tossed before he can reach the first tee.

So he heads to the beach and to local parks to practice his swing, often with disastrous results. Still, on the day of Open qualifying rounds, Flitcroft is there, glowing with self-confidence — and, standing on a golf course for the first time in his life, proceeds to shoot the worst round in Open history.

The story could have ended there, and you would still have had a pretty good movie. But neither Flitcroft nor the filmmakers can let it go: Despite angry vows from Britain’s golf elite that Flitcroft will never again set foot on the hallowed ground of the Open, he returns year after year under assumed names like Gerald Hoppy, Gene Paycheck, Count Manfred von Hoffmanstel and, my personal favorite, Arnold Palmtree. Each time he slips through the vetting process — and each time he turns in a miserable qualifying round.

It’s possible that the real-life Flitcroft, who died in 2007, was really just an incurable hoaxer who enjoyed tweaking the turned-up nose of the British sports establishment. But that’s not the character created by Rylance. His Flitcroft is an endlessly optimistic, defiantly proud competitor who chafes at the title “World’s Worst Golfer.” He may be awful at the sport, but it’s a sport that he loves, and not even a nationwide ban from England’s courses is going to spoil his fun.

Tight-jawed and soft-spoken, Rylance’s Flitcroft doesn’t have to work hard to earn our unbridled support. He’s devoted to his twin sons (who take turns caddying without bothering to tell officials they’ve switched) and his embarrassed older son Michael (Jake Davies), who, as a rising young businessman from the wrong side of town, is fighting his own private class war in the executive suite.

And then there’s Flitcroft’s adoring wife, Jean, played with dewy-eyed devotion by Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water). On one hand, Jean is the prototypical movie spouse every underdog script demands — adamantly supportive with ready doses of tough love when necessary. But Hawkins never lets Jean become a caricature, painting a fully rounded portrait of a woman in love with a quirky, confusing man.

Jean clearly doesn’t understand Maurice’s golf passion, but she understands him, and for her — and us — that is quite enough.

Featured image: Mark Rylance as Maurice Flitcroft (Photo by Nick Wall)

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