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“The Phantom of the Open” belongs to a very particular brand of British comedy: twee, true tales of plucky underdogs accomplishing outrageous acts against the odds. Think “Calendar Girls,” “Eddie the Eagle,” or “Military Wives.” The humorless naysayers of society doubt them and mock them to mask their own insecurities, but still, these true believers trudge on toward their unlikely destiny. The tone is usually dryly cheeky, and maybe even a bit naughty, but ultimately these films give in to their easiest and most crowd-pleasing instincts before dissolving in a pile of sentimental goo.
This is that, but with golf.
Mark Rylance dons a colorful argyle vest and jaunty red bucket hat to play Maurice Flitcroft, who infamously shot the worst round in British Open history in 1976. You see, he didn’t belong there. He was a crane operator at a shipyard in working-class Barrow-in-Furness. He faked his way into the prestigious tournament by fudging the paperwork, albeit in good-natured fashion. His sweetly adoring wife, Jean (Sally Hawkins), even helped him with this task, benignly making up answers to questions about his handicap and such. He didn’t know it was wrong, the film suggests. He just wanted to play golf—something he’d never actually done in his life. And he became a celebrated figure in the process.
But director Craig Roberts—working from a script by Simon Farnaby, based on Farnaby and Scott Murray’s biography of Flitcroft—never really gets to the heart of Flitcroft’s pursuit. Why does golf, of all activities, become his sudden obsession? We see him witness Tom Watson winning the Open on television in 1975. But what was it about this victory in this sport that was so transfixing? That crucial piece to understanding him feels missing; without this nugget of character development, “The Phantom of the Open” is just an airy, formulaic lark, with an especially mannered Rylance performance at the center. His thick accent does much of the acting for him, with a healthy sprinkling of quirks and tics. He’s just super sunny and adorable in every circumstance. Could Flitcroft really have been so irrepressibly optimistic? A suspension of disbelief in his childlike innocence only goes so far.
There’s even less to Hawkins’ character. Aside from a few tender moments between her and Rylance, she’s frustratingly stuck functioning as the doting, supportive wife, and not much else. The fact that she knows even less about golf is played for simple laughs. Meanwhile, Rhys Ifans is singularly smug and villainous as the head of the British Open who’s constantly chasing Flitcroft out; he’s the Wile E. Coyote to Rylance’s Roadrunner.
Flitcroft’s story was wild, but there’s a much crazier movie in here that “The Phantom of the Open” hints at but never fully embraces. Roberts dabbles in magical realism, such as when Flitcroft imagines the Earth is a golf ball he’s orbiting. He also tries to jazz up the story with muscular filmmaking techniques like whip pans and bold needle drops, which feels like he’s doing Craig Gillespie doing Paul Thomas Anderson doing Martin Scorsese. (Some of them are distractingly anachronistic, such as when Flitcroft and his buddy/caddy steal a golf cart and try to escape a tournament they’ve sneaked into with Christopher Cross’ “Ride Like the Wind” blaring in the background. This happens in 1978; the song wouldn’t come out until two years later. Nitpicky? Maybe a little, but in theory, they’re trying to invoke a specific time period.)
No, the fact that Flitcroft would put on wigs and mustaches and enter various tournaments under hilariously terribly pseudonyms like Gene Paycheki, Arnold Palmtree, and Count Manfred von Hoffmanstel is a far more interesting story. And he did this for years! There’s a sly, playful caper lying in wait here—something along the lines of “Catch Me If You Can,” perhaps. Instead, “The Phantom of the Open” takes the safe route and turns feel-good. Flitcroft became a cult hero to struggling golfers everywhere, the film shows us, culminating in a heart-tugging scene of tearful family reconciliation.
With its amusing training montages, colorful supporting characters, and uplifting message of perseverance, “The Phantom of the Open” does exactly what you expect it will in the most familiar, comforting manner imaginable. It earns the politest of golf claps.
Now playing in theaters.
Mark Rylance as Maurice Flitcroft
Sally Hawkins as Jean Flitcroft
Rhys Ifans as Keith Mackenzie
Simon Farnaby as Laurent Lambert
Mark Lewis Jones as Cliff
Jonah Lees as James Flitcroft
Christian Lees as Gene Flitcroft
Ash Tandon as Lloyd Donovan
Ian Porter as Dick Nelson
Jake Davies as Michael Flitcroft