I was drawn to this film not because I’m an aficionado of golf but because Mark Rylance’s performances always entertain me. I also loved the story once I read more about Maurice Flitcroft. The game of golf tends to be a game for the elite and those who have the money. Maurice Flitcroft and his story change that dynamic and bring the idea that maybe golf should be for everyone. The film is heartwarming with a beautiful story, brilliant performances, whimsical and hopeful even at its darkest.
The Phantom of the Open is billed as a biographical comedy-drama film, directed by Craig Roberts, about the exploits of Maurice Flitcroft. The screenplay by Simon Farnaby is based upon the biography The Phantom of the Open: Maurice Flitcroft, The World’s Worst Golfer by Farnaby and Scott Murray. The film details the exploits of Maurice Flitcroft (Mark Rylance), a dreamer and a crane operator who, after discovering he might be made redundant, finds a late in life passion for the game of golf, despite having no knowledge of golf. With the loving support of his wife, Jean (Sally Hawkins), helped by his twin sons Gene and James (Jonah and Christian Lees), and the embarrassment of his oldest son, Michael (Jake Davies), Maurice finds a way to learn the game and achieved his goal of entering the British Open Golf Championship in 1976. He gains fame as the worst golfer in the history of the event, driving the officials, like Keith MacKenzie (Rhys Ifans), secretary of the R & A, mad even as he entertains the common people.
As far-fetched as the story for this film appears to be, most of it is the true history of Maurice Flitcroft. Truth is stranger than fiction, and there seems to be little invented for the film that didn’t happen in real life. And to me, that adds much to the charm of this movie. It is in mixing reality with the story that makes the film so beautiful. The appeal is partly because Maurice Flitcroft is such a relentless and hopeful dreamer despite his lack of true experience. Even when most others would give up, Maurice finds a way to keep his dream alive even in the face of others’ doubts. The ups and downs, and the mix of drama with more humorous moments, give the film such emotion and whimsy. The authenticity and realism add more joy and humor than any amount of fiction.
Part of that blend is the way the filmmakers put the story together. We begin with an interview with Maurice, where we find out a bit about his past, and more importantly, we find out why he went from crane operator to golfer. We also learn about the loving support from his wife Jean and his children, including stepson Michael. This mix-up with the presentation allows the audience to connect with the characters immediately. The dream sequences that demonstrate Maurice’s passion when he learns about golf only enhance the sense of whimsy and the comedic elements of the story. And while normally, most audiences cheer for the underdog to win, it is in Maurice’s cheerful determination that this story finds its true heart. We don’t need Maurice to win because he wins in other ways. Instead, he succeeds at his passion, has a loving family, and inspires other golfers to succeed even if their game is less than perfect. That hopefulness will make the dreamers smile when they watch this film.
The performances are brilliant. Mark Rylance as Maurice brings such a hopeful and warm tone to his portrayal, a grace even at the most difficult of times that genuinely embraces the heart of who Maurice Flitcroft was as a person. The loving dynamic between Rylance and Sally Hawkins cements how supportive the true Jean must have been. Even though this is billed as a biographical comedy, the love story between Jean and Maurice is at the heart of the film, and Sally Hawkins does a beautiful job of bringing Jean to life. Christian and Jonah Lees are excellent as twins Gene and James, especially bringing such skillful dancing to their roles. Jake Davies, as Michael Flitcroft, brings more of the dramatic element and is part of the emotional up and down of the story. Rhys Ifans portrays Keith MacKenzie perfectly with just enough humor to allow the comedic elements in the movie to shine through.
The only critique is that the film does follow a slower pace. If you’re looking for an action film, this isn’t it. It is a very character-driven film, and every nuance is built by following the character of Maurice Flitcroft as he learns the ups and downs of golf, attempting to achieve his goals. This also upends the trope of the underdog wins in that while Maurice did achieve fame, it wasn’t in actually winning the British Open. If you don’t mind the twist in the trope, however, it is quite interesting how the story uses that upset still to shine a light on the optimism of Maurice.
This film is for you if you like hopeful and charming stories full of whimsy, with interesting characters and unusual yet true history. The characters are incredibly engaging, the story is irrepressibly entertaining, Mark Rylance is impeccably good with just the right touch of humor and warmth, and I love the relationship between Maurice and Jean, the true heart of the movie. The dynamics between the actors are rich and nuanced, with facial expressions and subtle humor that will keep you cheering for Maurice, even when his luck is down. This is an underdog story where the underdog never wins but will still charm audiences.
Rating: 4.5 golf balls out of 5.
The Phantom of the Open
Maurice Flitcroft, a dreamer and unrelenting optimist, managed to gain entry to The British Open Golf Championship Qualifying in 1976 and subsequently shot the worst round in Open history, becoming a folk hero in the process. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPEN is in theaters and opens in Phoenix Arizona on Friday, June 10, 2022.