As fuzzy and reassuring as a multi-coloured Pringle sweater-vest, The Phantom of the Open is a good, old-fashioned crowd-pleaser. Based on a true story, it stars Mark Rylance as Maurice Flitcroft, a Barrow-in-Furness crane-operator turned novice golfer, who – on multiple occasions – blagged his way into the British Open.
Earning himself the ignominious title of “The World’s Worst Golfer” – a title which he strongly refutes, mind you – after a record-breaking 121 at the 1976 tournament, Flitcroft would go on to a latter-day career that only came into being after a chance late night, love-at-first-site encounter with a game he had never previously played being on the TV. Rife with uplifting life lessons, affirmations of ‘aiming for the stars’ and learning from mistakes, what could have been a cloying and rather clichéd script is, for the majority, anything but. At just thirty years of age, it’s remarkable that this is already Craig Roberts’ third outing as director.
Perhaps best-known for his performance in Richard Ayoade’s Submarine and alongside Paul Rudd in The Fundamentals of Caring, it’s unsurprising that the young Welsh actor and filmmaker elicits such genuine warmth, sparky positivity and togetherness from his wonderful cast. Demonstrating a real flair for comic timing, poignant storytelling and a barrel-load of northern soul, Roberts opens his film at the end. Maurice, a grey-haired Rylance with very false pearly whites, is being interviewed for American TV. Between the bookends, and with a number of that staple of sports movies – the childhood montage, the training montage, the we’re-down-but-not-out montage – playfully writ with tongue firmly in cheek, experiencing the life of the Flitcrofts is a delight; wholesomely familiar, like putting on an old winter coat for the first time in a year.
Immediately welcome, settled in to a comfy seat in the humble family home with a cup of tea and a biscuit, we meet the ever-magnificent Sally Hawkins who plays Jean, Maurice’s wife, twins Jonah and Christian Lees (who frequently steal the show) as the couple’s younger sons, and Jake Davies as Mike, Jean’s son from a previous relationship. Thanks to the twins’ obsession with disco dancing, the film bounces along to some of the best music the mid-1970s had to offer. And even in the face of incoming redundancies at the local shipyard, Maurice is eternally optimistic. Lying somewhere close to the gutter, but always looking up at the stars, his idealistic outlook on life rubs some the wrong way, but the beating heart of The Phantom of the Open lies in the relationship between man and wife, father and sons.
The little glances, the twinkle in the eyes, the unspoken communication and ease of repartee between Hawkins and Rylance is wondrous. Whether out on the course, in front of the cameras or chatting over lunchtime sandwiches with the lads at the top of a crane, Rylance – and the script more broadly – is riotously funny. Having adapted a book he co-wrote with Scott Murray, actor Simon Farnaby makes a small but noteworthy cameo as well. All in all, it does exactly what it says on the tin, but The Phantom of the Open just goes to show that even if you shank one off the tee into the woods, you keep your head down and try, try again.
Visit the BFI London Film Festival page to delve deeper into the wealth of films on show this year.
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63