Some British comedy is crude and rude, while others herald their stars against all odds and allow their main character to learn and grow with just the right touch of humour to keep viewers interested. The Phantom of the Open is one of those latter films that leans heavily into sentimentality and endures in its goal to please crowds, with much of it owing to its captivating story and fantastic star.
Maurice Flitcroft (Mark Rylance) is an everyday crane operator in an English shipyard who decides on a whim to compete in the British Open in 1976. His positivity and inability to take a hint sees him fake his way into the tournament by lying on his resume, and even when approved to enter, goes through with competing. What eventuates is Maurice becoming known as the ‘worst golfer of all time’.
Assisted by his doting wife Jean (Sally Hawkins), his motivation is not to deceive or trick anyone – rather, it’s just about his want to play golf with his peers. And while he doesn’t find success, he learns about himself, his family and becomes an unforgettable figure of the golf world.
Director Craig Roberts makes all the right choices and Phantom of the Open becomes a blockbuster with a lot of heart. The script by Simon Farnaby, based on his biography of Flitcroft, takes us through the ebbs and flows of Maurice’s “career” and reminders viewers to counter their own cynicism through the happy-go-lucky Maurice. However that’s also where its depth ends.
One ongoing plot issue is convincing where Maurice’s interest in golf truly came from. If the story had delved more into this drive, it could have been considered one of the strongest films of the year. Instead, it feels like it’s missing that moment that drives much of the film and undermines its lead.
Rylance is the star of the film and there is no doubt it would not work without his grounding performance. He is appealing, and his quirky mannerisms make the character feel more than just a caricature that is can slide into at times. In each situation, you feel somewhat concerned about what Maurice will do next, yet Rylance makes his eventual decisions feel grounded in reality and reflect his blissful ignorance.
Hawkins unfortunately doesn’t have too much to work with, and is relegated to the role of “the wife” for most of the story. Indeed she has some moments towards the end of the film to show off her chops, but most of the time she is too easily sidelined in the story.
The film itself also leans heavily into the fun side of Maurice’s journey, wigs and costumes full. This at times feels ingenuine and an easy way to mock Maurice, despite its root in truth. With any other director, the Phantom of the Open it could have been grittier, crazier and less glossy, but it succeeds in being a fun and joy-filled ride that is one of the best feel-good films of the year.