Writer: Simon Farnaby
Director: Craig Roberts
Forget Emma Raducanu. Forget Lewis Hamilton. We prefer our sporting heroes to be less successful. Like Eddie the Eagle. Like Eric the Eel. And like Maurice Flitcroft, who, in the 1970s, was dubbed the worst golf player in the world. As this Phantom of the Open, Mark Rylance is at the centre of this heart-warming British drama.
The film begins with a little backstory that could easily have been a feature in itself, but writer Simon Farnaby and director Craig Roberts wisely, if efficiently, compress Flitcroft’s early years into a few minutes. We see him as a boy being evacuated during the war from Barrow-in-Furness to Scotland where he learns Spanish (which will help later when he meets a young Seve Ballesteros). Returning home he starts work in the local shipyard, a job for life where you ‘go in on your feet and come out in a box’. He meets his wife Jean who runs a local theatre company for wayward children. She has a son already. Maurice doesn’t mind. He and Jean marry. They have twins who become national disco champions. It all sounds improbable and idyllic. We are only two minutes in.
The real start of the film is when Maurice realises that his job may not be for life after all. Under the Labour government the shipyards are being nationalised and he might lose his job as a crane operator in the reorganisation. Jean tells him that he shouldn’t worry but use the opportunity to follow his dreams. Except that he doesn’t have any. Switching on the new TV late at night to see highlights of the British Open golf championship gives Maurice an idea. He will play at next year’s tournament.
He’s never picked up a club before. He doesn’t have the right clobber. He doesn’t belong to a golf club. But this doesn’t deter him, and unimaginably and spectacularly he’s accepted into the 1976 British Open with his disco-dancer sons as caddies. Like the best British sitcoms, Phantom of the Open is about class, and class conflict. The golfing world, led by Rhys Ifans’ pompous Lambert, doesn’t want Maurice because he is working class. His lack of talent is a secondary problem.
Rylance’s performance as Maurice is very sympathetic, always keeping some distance from caricature and providing enough ambiguity so that we are never sure if The Phantom is just deluded, or whether he has an axe to grind. In calling the players at his local club ‘tossers’ proves that he knows when he’s being patronised, but he says it under his breath as he’s walking away from them. Playing at the British Open could be his revenge.
But Phantom of the Open is also very funny, and Rylance excels in these scenes too, never overdoing the comedy; just a wry look here, and subtle gasp there. As Maurice’s wife, Sally Hawkins adds her own brand of humour, and again never overplays it so that final scenes are genuinely moving. Isobel Waller-Bridge’s music may help get those tears flowing, but this is accompanied by an excellent soundtrack where golf and disco are surprisingly compatible bedfellows.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t know anything about golf because neither did Flitcroft. And his innocence makes this story of the underdog so affecting. This one-man battle against the establishment may be the best hole-in-one ever.
Phantom of the Open is screening at the London Film Festival.