It may not be absolutely necessary to be a golf aficionado to appreciate “Tommy’s Honour,” but it would certainly help. Jason Connery’s film is essentially a biopic about “Young” Tommy Morris, the nineteenth-century figure who, in his short life, transformed the game not only by challenging the class system that until then had dominated it but by becoming the model of the modern “professional” golfer. His story is juxtaposed with that of his father “Old Tom,” the groundskeeper at the famed St. Andrews links, who was always deferential to his social superiors, for whom he was pleased to act as caddy—and who initially, at least, saw his son as overly ambitious and insufficiently cognizant of his “natural” status—even after they paired in joint matches.
It has to be said straightaway that the movie is as well-manicured as any well-kept course used on the golf tour today. James Lapley’s production design and Robert Macfarlane’s costumes create a fine sense of time and place, and cinematographer Gary Shaw uses their work, and the gorgeous Scottish locations, to maximum effect. Visually this is a first-rate piece of work, and Christian Hensen’s accompanying score is equally lush.
Dramatically, however, the film leaves a good deal to be desired. The tension between the traditional values of Old Tom (Peter Mullan, an appropriately leonine presence) and Young Tom (Jack Lowden, rather blandly pugnacious) is decently sketched, especially when the sour snootiness of St. Andrews’ captain Alexander Boothby (Sam Neill, exuding odious elitism) comes into play to demand that underlings know their place. Less successful is the conflict between Young Tom and his mother Nancy (Therese Bradley), a strictly moral woman who objects to his relationship with Meg (lovely Ophelia Lovibond), a waitress significantly older than he—and with a dodgy past (an illegitimate child) to boot. It must be added, though, that the film does deal effectively with the final tragedy of Young Tom’s life—the fatal illness brought on during a match played in terribly inclement weather that coincided with his wife’s death in childbirth. The screenplay by Pamela Marin and Kevin Cook, based on the latter’s book, may fudge the chronology a bit here (as elsewhere), but the juxtaposition certainly proves an effective emotional device.
While handling the more intimate family matters adequately, however, the picture largely fails in what should be its central element—the golf. It gets across the basic points, that Young Tom’s triumphs (he won a series of Open championships and is said to have hit the first-ever hole-in-one) represented a democratization of the sport, and that his “superstar” status on the links (embodied in his insistence on getting a fair share of the proceeds from matches that had previously been monopolized by aristocratic sponsors) foreshadowed the careers of contemporary pros. It also conveys the roughness of the terrain on which the game was played, the nasty weather that players sometimes had to contend with, and the brutishness of the crowds that followed the matches (largely hometown fellows who would sometimes interfere with the balls and engage in rowdy clashes).
But Connery, an avid golfer himself, isn’t able to invest the actual scenes of play with much energy or intensity. Mullan and Lowden mimic the swings decently (though neither, apparently, is a devotee of the sport), but it’s clear that some visual effects were employed to show the movement of the balls. More serious, though, is that the scenes of play never develop much excitement. The stately pace that the director and editor John Scott bring to them, combined with the fact that inevitably they can offer only snatches of matches (we’re suddenly at the last hole in every case—where, of course, the winner will be determined) leave the viewer a bit lost, as well as a mite bored. One might also question the wisdom of the framing device the makers use—an interview of Old Tom in his last years, by which time he had become the molder of rules for the game and the designer of numerous links—which merely adds to the prosaic format in which the story is told.
Connery’s film is an honorable attempt to portray the family dynamic of two men who had a powerful impact on the development of golf as a sport of the common man as well as the swells, but ultimately the staid reverence with which it treats their story undermines its dramatic impact.