Producers: Tom Miller, Nichola Martin and Kate Glover Director: Craig Roberts Screenplay: Simon Farnaby Cast: Mark Rylance, Sally Hawkins, Rhys Ifans, Mark Lewis Jones, Christian Lees, Jonah Lees, Jake Davies, Johann Myers, Steve Oram, Tim Steed and Ash Tandon Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
British eccentrics are a special breed, and British filmmakers have long enjoyed celebrating their oddity; in “The Duke,” his last film, Roger Michell offered a delicious portrait of unlikely art thief Kempton Bunton, wonderfully played by Jim Broadbent, who lifted a portrait of the Duke of Wellington from London’s National Gallery in 1961. Now actor and occasional director Craig Roberts offers a take on Maurice Flitcroft, the amateur who both outraged and and enlivened the world of professional golf in the UK in the seventies, and is fortunate to have secured the formidable Mark Rylance to play the unlikely hero.
There’s a difference, however, in that Bunton was an idealist at heart—one who took his zeal for reform too far, perhaps, but was nonetheless a man of principle, and also an articulate, intelligent autodidact who could defend himself with crowd-pleasing vigor. By contrast Flitcroft comes off here as a somewhat dim bulb, a milquetoast working-class bloke who simply became fascinated with golf by watching the British Open on the telly and decided that he’d like to play in it too, though he’d never swung a club in his life.
Simon Farnaby, first in his 2010 book “The Phantom of the Open: Maurice Flitcroft, The World’s Worst Golfer” (written with Scott Murray) and now in the screenplay adapted from it, portrays how Flitcroft bumbled his way into the tournament in 1976 and gained public notoriety by breaking the record for the worst score by a wide margin—an incredible 121. He went on to try to play in further tournaments, but because he’d been banned by organizers had to assume absurd names and nutty disguises in order to do so. Meanwhile the chief organizer of the Open, Keith Mackenzie (a blustering Rhys Ifans) is shown fuming over Flitcroft’s antics from the sidelines, even as Maurice’s popularity rises—he becomes an icon to struggling golfers everywhere, even being invited to a tournament in Grand Rapids, where a trophy is named after him. That event closes the movie on a triumphant note, celebrating a man who fulfilled his dream, after a fashion.
The picture strives for the Ealing comedy vibe of the little man succeeding against the odds, but it fudges the message by presenting Flitcroft as a sort of happy simpleton who merely stumbles into the role of folk hero. A crane operator in a shipyard at Barrow-in-Furness, he loses his job in 1975—his stepson Michael (Jake Davies), a midlevel official at the yard, gives him the news—and soon falls into his golf obsession. The bigwigs at the local club send him away, and when he sneaks onto the course to practice, chase him off. But he obstinately persists, and with the help of his ever-supportive wife Jean (Sally Hawkins) hedges on his answers on the application to the Open and is admitted to the 1976 tournament.
Roberts, cinematographer Kit Fraser and editor Jonathon Amos have fun with Flitcroft’s practice sessions and actual tournament play, using some animated dream sequences in the former and not just deadpan crowd reaction cutaways but a few slow-mo tricks in the latter. But the film relies mostly on the relaxed, laid-back performance of Rylance, who, fitted with some false teeth and oddball outfits by Siân Jenkins, makes Maurice a figure amusingly oblivious to the consternation his poor play is causing (there’s a touch of Clouseau in his work here); it’s undoubtedly an affected turn, but one attuned to what the script demands, and Amos’ leisurely editing gives it ample time to bloom. Scenes of later tournament play take a more slapstick approach, especially in a sequence in which Flitcroft and his friend Cliff (Mark Lewis Jones) steal a golf cart and make a run for it when one of his impostures is discovered.
One can imagine an edgier telling of Flitcroft’s story—one that presented the implicit divide between his lower-class ambitions and the more rarefied world into which he sought entrance in sharper terms. One can also envision one in which he’s less a passive schlub carried along on a wave of accidental fame and more of a cagey hoaxer cannily sticking it to the establishment. But on the more benign terms Farnaby and Roberts have chosen, his tale becomes a likable enough helping of feel-good Capracorn on the putting green, with Rylance expertly calibrating how far he can take the character’s befuddlement.
The picture is also given some heart by its domestic side. The bond between Maurice and Jean is surprisingly moving, and Hawkins, while kept mostly in the background, has a few good moments, especially when looking back at how important Flitcroft was in helping her through difficult times. (We’re given flashbacks to his youth and their courtship.) His final tribute to her at Grand Rapids can’t avoid being maudlin, but no more than the sudden appearance there of Michael, who’s been estranged from his stepfather because of the embarrassment Maurice’s escapades have brought to the firm (until it’s demonstrated that they’re also helping its bottom line).
More refreshing is the unbridled affection and support Flitcroft gets from his twin sons by Jean, Gene and James (Christian and Jonah Lees), who have a peculiar dream of their own—to become champion disco dancers. This “Saturday Night Fever” subplot is actually quite charming, and the two boys bring exuberance to a family dynamic that’s otherwise played at a rather low boil. Christian also scores when serving as caddy at his father’s first British Open try. Farnaby also takes a supporting role in the picture.
It should also be noted that visually the movie has a seventies look, thanks not only to Fraser’s rather rugged lensing but Jenkins’ costumes and Sarah Finlay’s production design; both demonstrate plenty of period detail. And Isabel Waller-Bridge’s score frequently gives way to pop songs reflecting the tenor of the times.
By the close “The Phantom of the Open” may not have scored an ace, or even a birdie, but it’s at least a solid cinematic bogey—not great for a pro, but then Flitcroft wasn’t actually one.