Few cultures make a religion out of embracing eccentrics the way the Brits do. They like to see themselves as history’s plucky underdogs, and they’re always on the lookout for another example of unlikely glory, somebody underestimated but determined to have a go at it.
That expression “taking the piss” out of this elite or that competence made Monty Pythoners rich, and made the names of Eddie the Eagle or Boris the Johnson.
Maurice Flitcroft’s bizarre claim to fame was being labeled “The Worst Golfer in the World.”
“I’m not the world’s worst golfer,” he’d protest to every TV interviewer who introduced him thus, which added to his charm.
A Manchester native and shipyard crane operator, he became a twinkling presence in a stuffy, starchy rich man’s sport by stumbling into a loophole in the entry process of the most hallowed golf tournament of them all, The British Open.
“The Phantom of the Open” tells his story, how he stumbled across golf coverage on the family’s new telly, saw the prize money available, and facing “redundancy” layoff at the Vickers Shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness, decided to “have a go” at the sport — at 46.
Mark Rylance brings his quiet “Dunkirk” stoicism and “Bridge of Spies” whimsy to Flitcroft, an underdog born to be underestimated, but a man of uncommon — if delusional — persistence.
Flitcroft’s adoring wife (Sally Hawkins) may indulge his latest fancy. His twin sons (Chrisian Lees and Jonah Lees) may take inspiration from his “aim for the stars” and live “the dream” ethos, and pursue their disco dancing dreams because of him.
But working class blokes like him get the “old chum” brushoff by golf club snobs. And the only way for a working man to learn the game in that pre-Youtube/pre-VCR age was from a book, “practicing” on a beach, in power line easements or in his backyard.
He is plainly out of his dept and not very good, no matter how many times he figures “I’m just a whisker away.” But the man has his mind made up.
“I quite fancy lifting the old Claret Jug.”
Welsh actor (“The Fundamentals of Caring”) turned director Craig Roberts and actor-turned-screenwriter Simon Farnaby (“Paddington 2”) keeps their eyes on the cute and find delight even in the in the sadly sentimental parts of this story.
Hawkins’ character Jean is the one who assures Maurice “It’s your turn,” that after providing for and raising their family, he deserves this indulgence. She lets us see the “reality” she won’t break to him about the dire financial straits this might put them in.
His oldest stepson (Jake Davies), college-educated and an executive at the shipyard, might feel ashamed at Dad’s antics.
But cheap golf clubs can be bought by mail, and Maurice’s sketchy mate Cliff (Mark Lewis Jones) is always there to provide golfing kit from various “sources.” Cliff need never use the phrase “fell off a truck” because it’s implied.
And then there’s the first golfer Maurice meets in his first ever golf club locker room as he’s about to play his first round ever. The club was Royal Birkdale, the event was the 1976 British Open, and the foreign fellow also trying to get comfortable in this alien environment was Seve Ballesteros, who is relieved to find a British golfer who speaks Spanish, and who is willing to dispense golf and life advice to the youngster, who just beams.
“I hope your golf is as good as your Spanish!”
“The Phantom of the Open” has plenty of moments like that, on and off the links. Maurice’s twins impishly pull one over on the officials by taking turns caddying, drawing gobsmacked looks from the rest of Maurice’s golfing foursome. Found out, Maurice is politely confronted, but declines to “retire” from the course.”
And that British Open, infamous for producing “the worst score ever” recorded at an open championship, wasn’t the end of the story. Oh no. “Banned” Maurice continued his “practice practice, that’s the way to success” regimen, “wooorkin’ on me pootin’,” donning disguises and posing as a French pro just to get another whack at the Claret Jug.
Flitcroft became famous, an object of almost pitiable fun in the press. But working class strangers cheer him on, with “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”
Roberts and the production team pepper the soundtrack with bubbly pop — ABBA, Leo Sayer, “Build Me Up, Buttercup,” Louis Prima — underscoring the “lark” nature of it all. Flitcroft’s hallucinatory hopes for golf glory may be twee ands generically surreal, but they can’t help but tickle.
They cast a perfect comic foil in Rhys Ifans, as the infuriated Scottish guardian of the Open, the game “we invented” and decorum that Maurice fakes his way into.
And through it all, Rylance anchors the proceedings in a sort of dazed, askance reality, a clever-enough fellow with a “have a go” can-do spirit, no matter what the “wankers” in charge say.
He makes this “phantom” a grand anti-hero in a film that only hints at the dark days — layoffs, national decline and the vigorously pursued class wars of Thatcherism — breaking out all around him. This may not be Rylance’s greatest film, the stakes being as low as they are. But his impersonation is both uncanny — stay through the credits — and adorable.
He makes “The Phantom of the Open” a delight for duffers and non-duffers alike, a grand goof on a still-elitist sport and the sort of comedy worth a sip or two of claret afterwards with or without the jug.
Rating: PG-13 for some strong language and smoking
Cast: Mark Rylance, Sally Hawkins, Jonah Lees, Christian Lees, Jake Davies and Rhys Ifans
Credits: Directed by Craig Roberts, scripted by Simon Farnaby, based on the book by Scott Murray. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Running time: 1:46