As Maurice Flitcroft’s extraordinary story hits the big screen, we review The Phantom of the Open, starring Mark Rylance and Sally Hawkins.
Golf has always had a chequered history on the big screen. If it wasn’t for the connection with golf, we probably wouldn’t bother watching Tin Cup, Caddyshack or Happy Gilmore again… and they’re the good ones.
But The Phantom of the Open is different. The story of ‘the world’s worst golfer’ is effortlessly charming with broad appeal. Yes, from a golfer’s perspective it is flawed (what golf movie hasn’t been), but it is heart-warmingly funny.
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It is about so much more than just golf or celebrating a sporting underdog. BAFTA-winning writer Simon Farnaby, a keen golfer whose father was a greenkeeper at Ganton, has created a script that is amiably daft, but draws you in with a strong British cast, unseen archived footage, and a miraculous true story which is as farcical as it is heart-warming.
This cosy, sweet-natured comedy is based on the 2010 book of the same name, co-written by Farnaby and Scott Murray. Directed by Craig Roberts, it stars Oscar winner Mark Rylance as the mischievous Flitcroft, a chain-smoking crane operator from Barrow-in-Furness. He is inspired to take up golf and ‘win The Open’ having caught the end of Tom Watson’s 1975 victory at Carnoustie on television, but there’s a couple of small issues… Flitcroft has never played the game before and he’s already 46.
His age and working class background see him treated as a joke when he attempts to join his local golf club, but Flitcroft isn’t perturbed and decides to go one better. Armed with a cheap set of mail-order golf clubs and making the most of a loophole in The Open’s admissions rules, he cheekily enters Open Qualifying as a self-declared professional.
When you see him hit his opening tee shot with his eyes closed it’s no surprise to discover that he goes on to shoot the highest round in the tournament’s history (a 49-over-par 121), much to the chagrin of the pompous R&A secretary Keith MacKenzie, brilliantly played by Rhys Ifans.
Flitcroft is banned from every Open course for life, but he keeps on gate-crashing competitions by donning disguises and fake names like Arnold Palmtree and Gene Pacecki (as in pay cheque).
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There are obvious thematic parallels with Eddie The Eagle but, while there is a strong story to be told, the book does a far better job at telling it – at least from a golfing standpoint.
Nonetheless, the film still bounces through its 102 minutes thanks to a brilliant 70s soundtrack and is at its best in examining how Maurice’s eccentricity and lovably awkward can-do-attitude affects his long-suffering wife Jean, played by BAFTA winner Sally Hawkins, and their three sons.
Unsurprisingly, Rylance does a great job as Flitcroft, providing some laugh-out-loud slapstick comedy moments and winning you over by defying the snobbery of other golfers while maintaining his charming optimism, just as the real Maurice had.
But at times, especially towards the end, the film veers into the realms of silliness with fantastical dream sequences and a golf-buggy police chase. We even see a golfer (clearly meant to be Tiger Woods) giving a speech and revealing that he was about to give up on the game until he saw Maurice playing on TV.
Regular golfers will spot some other small flaws (like golf clubs being grounded in the bunker), but if you can look past those things, our hero actually provides a pertinent lesson in morality and how you do not need to win at golf or life to find happiness. We can all learn something from that.
TG verdict: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
The Phantom of The Open is a 12A and hits cinemas on Friday (March 18). Book your tickets, here.
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