‘The Phantom of the Open’ scores a heartfelt birdie

“The Phantom of the Open” (2022) – Maurice Flitcroft’s (Mark Rylance) sports story can’t be true. 

No way.  It’s impossible.

It couldn’t have happened, except it did.

Maurice Flitcroft, a crane driver from the seaside town of Barrow-in-Furness, England, entered the 1976 British Open without ever playing a round of golf before in his 40-something years on Planet Earth.

He’s an athletic underdog of the highest order.  In some ways, not unlike the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team, Rudy Ruettiger, James ‘Buster’ Douglas, or the fictional Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), except in these cases, the athletes reached stratospheric highs through years of blood, sweat, and tears.  Mr. Flitcroft reached similar peaks but through luck and some well-placed initiative. 

Maurice’s journey is more similar to, let’s say, an everyday high school student applying and getting a mathematics teaching position at Stanford University.  It’s a fantastical achievement for this imaginary teenager, but what happens when the said kid has to lead 400-level lectures to Stanford seniors? 

Maurice Flitcroft (Mark Rylance)

Director Craig Roberts and screenwriter Simon Farnaby – who are primarily actors by trade but have been directing and writing since 2015 and 2006, respectively – embrace this real-life character’s tall tale in their heartfelt film.

“The Phantom of the Open” opens with Maurice (Rylance) recounting his trek to golfing fame with a television reporter.  He briefly dots his humble beginnings, growing up in the 1930s, having dreams, and noting his interests in the violin, reading, and learning foreign languages.  (We’ll see that the latter will come in handy.)  His childhood aspirations, however, faded due to the time in history and his environment, but Rylance’s reliable, tender performance – throughout the movie’s 103-minute runtime – conveys that Maurice was a kind, optimistic soul.   

In the film, we see Maurice living a simple life.  Working at Vickers Shipyard, he carries a lunch pail with regular invites of cheese and pickle sandwiches and enjoys his friends from 9 to 5.  At home, he’s close with his three grown boys (the oldest is his stepson) and devoted wife, Jean (Sally Hawkins), and they live in modest row housing with three channels on the telly and suppers around the table.  Money is tight, but so is their family.  Hawkins is terrific as Jean.  The script gives Sally plenty of screen time to express Jean’s support for her husband and kids, golf learning curve, and full partnership with Maurice as he attempts to navigate the fairways and greens in this hopeful new profession. 

You see, their oldest, Michael (Jake Davies), works in management at the shipyard, and with Vickers becoming nationalized, he realizes that job cuts loom.  Michael tells his dad, and Maurice decides to look for other work, and professional golf becomes his passion project.  His goal is to play in the British Open, and how difficult could that be?  “Open” is in the tournament’s name, which means it’s open to everyone, right? 

Gene or James Flitcroft (Christian or Jonah Lees…they are twins) and Maurice (Rylance)

Maurice’s naïveté becomes a trusty asset because he simply applies to the Open, to be hosted at nearby Southport, just a two-hour drive from Barrow-in-Furness. 

The British Open Championship Offices in Scotland inexplicably accept his application, and here we go.  Maurice needs to practice to prepare for his big-stage debut. 

The film’s tone is mostly light, as bouncy old-school hits like “Build Me Up Buttercup”, “When You’re Smiling/The Sheik of Araby”, and “Put Your World in My World” accompany Maurice.  With comedic effects in play, Roberts captures enjoyable clips of Maurice attempting to learn the game himself.  As a permanently amateur golfer, I could certainly relate to our lead’s struggles on the tee box, fairway, and greens, but Maurice invites us to his preparation sessions, where we can chuckle at and with him…and ourselves.   

He eventually – although we don’t have to wait very long – reaches the British Open (also referred to as The Open Championship or The Open), and at times, Maurice’s heart is in his throat.  We’re right there with him.  Roberts nicely films his golf coverage, and he is Maurice’s caddy along with our hero’s energetic, infinitely positive twin boys, Gene (Christian Lees) and James (Jonah Lees).  How does Maurice perform at the titular event with so many eyes staring in his direction? 

Jean (Sally Hawkins) and Maurice (Rylance) Flitcroft

You have to see the movie, but Mr. Flitcroft closes his eyes at the end of his swing, so that’s a tiny hint. 

By design, the movie’s pacing moves nimbly during the “front nine” and slows during the “back nine”, as the script places key events in Maurice’s lap during the first 53 minutes and then copes with the repercussions during the last 50.  The family’s happy home discovers new strife, primarily between Maurice and Michael, but also with Maurice’s internal churn, which he tries to hold close to the vest, sometimes to no avail.  These moments keep “The Phantom of the Open” from being a straight-up comedy, and the biopic spends more time at home and Maurice and Michael’s workplace than the course.  Still, for diehard and casual golf fans, Roberts features plenty of drives, chips, putts, and a few jaw-dropping surprises.

After watching this movie (and getting some looks at the real Maurice Flitcroft at the end), it isn’t easy to imagine another actor other than Rylance playing this linksman. 

(Although, admittedly, Rhys Ifans could give a healthy go as Maurice, but he’s perfectly suited as our lead’s chief rival, Open Official Keith Mackenzie.  Rhys is also downright unrecognizable here, sporting glasses and a thick mustache, but I digress.) 

Mark brings an eccentric it-factor to the screen in his grandest roles, like a Soviet spy in “Bridge of Spies” (2015) and tech CEOs in “Ready Player One” (2018) and “Don’t Look Up” (2021).  Add Maurice Flitcroft to his impressive resume.  Mark’s Maurice offers an enthusiastic innocence, blue-collar substance, love of family, and a steady, measured view of trying his best. 

Maurice doesn’t stress about worldwide clamor or distractions, as critical happenings appear right in front of his face, including the choice between a 4-wood and a driver, the distance to the pin, or the break on a green.  However, Jean, Michael, Gene, and James always occupy his thoughts, and his love for them shines on the screen. 

Yes, you might gladly shed a couple of tears – that have nothing to do with an errant shot or putt – during this warm underdog sports movie.

⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Directed by:  Craig Roberts

Written by:  Simon Farnaby, based on Scott Murray’s 2010 book

Starring:  Mark Rylance, Sally Hawkins, Rhys Ifans, Jake Davies, Christian Lees, Jonah Lees, Johann Myers, and Mark Lewis Jones

Runtime:  103 minutes

Rated: PG-13

Image credits: Entertainment One

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