The Phantom of the Open doesn’t deviate much from the underdog sports movie template, but has just enough depth and charm to slightly elevate it above the fold.
In the vein of Cool Runnings and Eddie the Eagle comes The Phantom of the Open, an underdog sports yarn based on a true story that seems almost too insane to be real. Maurice Flitcroft, a shipyard crane operator from Barrow, England, participated in the qualifying competition for the 1976 British Open Championship despite never having played golf a day in his life. He went on to score a disastrous 121, a number of such staggering awfulness that he instantly became something of a media sensation and folk hero, representing those working-class citizens who simply wanted a chance to compete. Based on the 2010 book by Scott Murray and Simon Farnaby, director Craig Roberts’ filmic take goes to great lengths to paint Filcroft as a dreamer and eternal optimist for whom each setback is simply another opportunity at glory. “Practice is the road to perfection,” he was often heard to repeat in interviews, yet The Phantom of the Open attempts to show how life’s imperfections often make the journey so much sweeter.
Mark Rylance stars as Filcroft, an affable bloke who deeply adores his wife Jean (Sally Hawkins) and three sons Michael (Jake Davies), James (Jonah Lees) and Gene (Christian Lees). Their flat may be as small as their paychecks, requiring them to take on menial tasks for additional income, but Maurice has instilled within his family a positive outlook on life, one in which no dream is too big or out of reach. It’s this optimism that compels Maurice when, after stumbling upon a golf game late one night on the new telly, to make it his mission to compete in the upcoming British Open, experience be damned. Turns out getting into the Open is a surprisingly easy task, as simply checking the “professional” box on the official form virtually guarantees entry. After all, lying would simply result in the applicant making a fool of themselves on national television. But Maurice is eternally hopeful, insisting that he can succeed if given his shot. That he fails so spectacularly isn’t necessarily surprising, as the big event takes place within the first 45 minutes and the film overall adheres so slavishly to the sports template that it seems to simply be setting Maurice up for an ultimate victory, one that may arrive in ways rather unexpected.
The Phantom of the Open wants to be both a thoughtful character study and an inspirational sports saga, its aim to uplift remaining fully intact. After gaining international infamy that embarrassed both his eldest son Michael and the shipyard that sponsored him, Maurice finds himself banned from ever competing in the Open again, requiring him to don various disguises that include ridiculous and over-the-top wigs, mustaches, and outfits. That this course of disguises worked several times is fairly remarkable; that Maurice barely ever improved his gameplay is likewise astonishing. But The Phantom of the Open doesn’t let Maurice completely off the hook, as it turns out being a big dreamer can have huge personal consequences, such as a loss of a home and a steady job. It also alienates Maurice from Jake, a pragmatist who views his flights of fancy as both selfish and dangerous, which the film briefly acknowledges yet swats away just in time for its crowd-pleasing finale. Indeed, the film’s biggest flaw is its insistence on introducing potentially troubling material and choosing to simply ignore or gloss over it when it gets in the way of its cliched redemption arc. But with an eternal twinkle in his eye, Rylance brings to Maurice hints of the sadness lurking just beneath the surface, his inspirational words doing only so much to hide the gnawing disappointment he feels within himself. It’s his earnest performance and approach to the material that does most of the heavy lifting here, and the seasoned pro pulls it off with predictable grace. Hawkins, meanwhile, is pretty much wasted in the role of “supporting wife,” although she gets one good scene near film’s end that is undoubtedly the only reason she took on such a thankless role in the first place.
It’s Roberts’ participation, then, that is most perplexing, as the 31-year-old Welsh actor is best known for his leading roles in Richard Ayoade’s coming-of-age tale Submarine and the raunchy Showtime series Red Oaks. This is his third outing in the director’s chair, having helmed a couple of features that were met with a collective shrug from audiences and critics alike, including 2015’s Just Him. He favors visual busyness above all else, introducing a variety of crash zooms and whip pans that desperately try to enliven the proceedings but prove mostly distracting. He definitely makes a choice in introducing Maurice’s love of golf via a fantasy sequence in which the middle-aged man ascends a flight of Astroturf-covered stairs and is throttled into space by a giant golf club, and another by having him orbit the moon at lightning-fast speed before it morphs into a behemoth golf ball. If nothing else, Roberts is certainly the first filmmaker to put out a feature under the Sony Pictures Classics banner who also once played a movie character named Ass Juice, a random bit of trivia that certainly the most surprising thing about The Phantom of the Open, a film that will undoubtedly appeal to its intended audience of grayheads looking for some feel-good laughs spiked with a dollop of depth. That those under the age of 60 may not be completely immune to its light charms is a wholly welcome development, even as low ceiling remains in place.