The Phantom of the Open Review: A feel-good film about a bad golfer

Mark Rylance stars in the true story of the shipyard worker who lied his way into the British Open despite never having played golf before.

A light and lyrical feel-good tale about Mancunian golfing legend Maurice G. Flitcroft – the shipyard crane operator who, improbably, managed to make it to the 1976 British Open and then, even more improbably, to an international because of his resilience in the face Folk heroes were met with humiliating results – The Phantom of the Open is everything you’d expect from an underdog sports film written by Paddington 2 author Simon Farnaby (and based on the book he and Scott Murray released via Flintcroft in 2010). It’s charming as hell, it has precious little patience for English classicism, and it’s about a childish misfit whose preternatural innocence tends to roll over the cynics and idiots who get in his way. It even stars Sally Hawkins, as is the case with all Paddington films and should be the case with all other films.

If The Phantom of the Open lacks the same magic that Farnaby cast over the masterful comedies he co-wrote about the world’s cutest bear, well, what doesn’t? Suffice it that this heartfelt joy conforms to its premise; There’s a birdie here and a bogey there, but director Craig Roberts (“Eternal Beauty”) maintains a firm grip on the film’s whimsical tone from start to finish, and the former “Red Oaks” star finds a way to have fun with his shots without having to risk its direct approach to the pin.

Mark Rylance, whose post-Bridge of Spies performances in films like Ready Player One and Don’t Look Up suffered from far too much sugar in a small cup of tea, portrays Maurice Flitcroft with such wriggly sweetness that he died on the seems to be grinning towards self-parody at the end of the very first scene, and yet in The Phantom of the Open Door he has found a film that is ready to hit the actor on his wavelength – a film in which everything is so slightly over the top, that Rylance’s character feels like a natural response to the world around him, rather than deviating from it.

In fact, The Phantom of the Open works so well because Rylance’s overly legible airs and graces make Maurice’s heart so much more difficult to analyze. Does this stumbling, everyday layman from the charcoal gray shores of Barrow-in-Furness – a 47-year-old father of three who may have completely forgotten the mere existence Playing golf before catching an amazing glimpse of a tournament on his family’s posh new three-channel TV – really think he can compete with the best players in the world, or is he just having some sort of mid-life crisis sparked by Margaret Thatchers rise to power?

The film’s playful, almost fabulous introduction to Maurice would suggest the former. It tells us about a little boy who was sent to Scotland for safety during the war and then returned to his dead-end town with a head full of stars that not even several decades of toil could dim his luster. To this day, his dreams resemble deleted scenes from A Matter of Life and Death. And while Maurice’s cartoonish naivety is a caricature of industrial simplicity, that overblown innocence is offset by the palpable hopes of a man who’s worked so hard for his sons to believe their dreams could actually come true – a man proud of it that his teenage twins want to become professional disco dancers and perhaps even prouder that his eldest, Michael (Jake Davies), has already climbed so high up the corporate ladder that his father looks short from his perspective.

However you slice it, there’s more than a little eccentricity at play as Maurice decides to ‘crack at the British Open’. Sure, it’s a bit misleading for him to tick the ‘pro’ box on the application, but it’s not his fault tournament officials let him on the links (Rhys Ifans plays the stuffed-shirt elitist who won the Royal & Ancient Golf Course, and (though he’s not familiar with someone named Maurice Flitcroft, he just assumes no one would be stupid enough to lie about their status).

And Maurice is actually pretty bad at golf. He’s able to touch the ball, which is a bit surprising given Rylance’s eyes-closed swing, but it tends not to go very far and Farnaby’s script has no interest in pretending it does that would ever have done in real life. On the contrary, The Phantom of the Open delights in how undisturbed Maurice is from his playing; One of the film’s best scenes sets him up for a dramatic putt, taking the rhythms and grammar of every inspirational sports film ever made… and then sticking with it as Maurice misses the putt four times in a row.

Whip pans, dance routines, and a killer period soundtrack punctuated by the likes of Billy Preston and Christopher Cross add winning streak to a losing streak that doesn’t miss a beat, even after Maurice is knocked out of the tournament and forced to sneak in power the course in disguise. The simple joy of this story lies not in Maurice’s imaginary victory, but in his rejection of defeat – his refusal to wallow in the gutter and leave the stars to those born just short of heaven. This world is what we make of it, and everyone can speak up.

In a moment so ironic and poignant that it could single-handedly propel this film through its misshapen structure and the sweet-yet-awkward subplots that tape it together (the most important of which is the embarrassment Michael reacts to to his father’s overnight fame) Maurice leaves the shipyard at the end of a shift and rips off his boring work smock to reveal the Argyle golf sweater underneath. His willingness to step out of line and grab his racquet by the handle is enough to make him a true superhero despite his disability(s).

The Phantom of the Open doesn’t always manage to dramatize Maurice’s self-determination – the trajectory of his career doesn’t lend itself particularly well to a three-act play, and a greater emphasis on the deception required to keep playing might have unbalanced a film that can’t afford to see its wide-eyed hero become a full-blown trickster – but Roberts and Farnaby celebrate Maurice’s achievements with such a genuine level of fun that it’s easy to keep golfing after the film is over gossip no more story to tell. Kit Fraser’s textured cinematography and Sarah Finlay’s loving production design give the whole thing an almost Kaurismäki-dry wink that Hawkins’ performance is able to capitalize on with every little gesture.

It all adds up to an affable film that, like its affable subject, has no measurable ambition other than to get the ball in the hole. And yet it could make stubborn souls weep a few tears in the back seat of an airplane, pick up the rest of us on a gray Sunday afternoon, and remind anyone struggling through persistent existential feelings of helplessness — which is another way of saying it is Everyone – that the world is her oyster, even if she looks a lot more like a barnacle.

Grade B

The Phantom of the Open is now in select theaters.

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Lindsay Lowe

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