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The Phantom of the Open Celebrates Mediocrity in Many Ways

Britain can lay claim to mastery over few things these days, but one place we’re still unmatched is in our ability to churn out and consume feelgood underdog movies. The annals of British cinema are full of true-life tales of working-class eccentrics standing up for the little guy and rattling the establishment’s cage—if very gently. The Phantom of the Open is a desperately typical example of this kind of export, bearing superficial similarities to Eddie the Eagle, another dramatisation of a doggedly determined and moderately hopeless amateur competing at an international sports event. Fortunately for that film’s director Dexter Fletcher—who went on to reunite with star Taron Edgerton for Rocketmanski jumping is a much more visually dynamic and high-stakes sport than golfing, perhaps the worst spectator sport imaginable (and also just the worst sport in general). With The Phantom of the Open, I just hope the idea of someone not being very good at golf has you rolling in the aisles cause that’s the one chord this film has to play.

The inspired amateur in this case was one Maurice Flitcroft, who found his way competing in the British Open in the mid-’70s, despite never having actually played a round of golf before, with access to golfing facilities somewhat limited to blue collar wearers. Quite how he actually managed to get accepted is something the film rather glosses over, as well as a few other pertinent questions. Though tolerated, critical thinking isn’t generally encouraged in this genre. Maurice exact motivations in entering seem, at least as depicted by this film, to be an innocent desire to compete. The archival footage of the real Maurice seems to suggest a more knowing personality than the one portrayed here.

The film’s Maurice Flitcroft is played by Mark Rylance as basically just a bit of an idiot, an idiot with feelings, but a dim bulb nonetheless. His clownish characterisation may be good for a light chuckle at his expense, but it’s not really sufficient to support a feature film. He seems at times to be set up as something of a holy fool, but that’s not an interpretation that Rylance succeeds in playing into. The film’s heart is instead left to be provided by his optimistic and perpetually supportive wife Jean, finding Sally Hawkins in her traditional role of sherpa, carrying scenes like they’ve collapsed on the slopes of Mt. Doom.

The writing is just sadly insufficient to bring drama to a story that it seems unable to approach organically, instead falling back on clichés that do it no favors. The film’s most unique characteristics are all present in the source material, with the development of the story feeling very drab, antiquated and paint by numbers. Screenwriter Simon Farnaby does manage to discover a promising emotional core in there, but it doesn’t feel like it’s allowed to bloom. At the film’s heart is a very relatable and really rather tender conflict, between living life for rational material benefit and devoting yourself to pursuits just because you love doing them, with no expectation of adulation or reward beyond the satisfaction of achieving a personal goal. This conflict is manifested in that between Maurice and the film’s antagonist, his son Michael (Jake Davies), who is trying to climb the middle management ladder and rankles at his father’s loony moonshot aspirations.

Maurice Flitcroft (Mark Rylance) enjoys an ice-cream cone at the British Open in The Phantom of the Open

One early scene between Maurice and Jean gave a glimpse of what this film might have been: with his job in jeopardy, Maurice proposes a fallback position as a refuse collector, and Jean is pained by this suggestion. Far from being the stereotypical worried and long-suffering wife figure, in recognition of all he’s sacrificed for their family already, Jean gently encourages Maurice to aim a little higher, think of himself for a change and find a vocation that might bring him some measure of happiness in itself. Of course, Maurice takes this to heart and gets bitten by the golfing bug, so good for him, but it’s sad to say that by the end of the first act, the film’s emotional peak is behind us. From there, the film takes a very plodding course, with a series of repetitive and one-dimensional scenes of Maurice trying to impose himself on the golfing establishment. Of course I’ve no sympathy for said establishment, but the film doesn’t seem to have much antipathy for them either.

At the end of the day the film’s failure comes down to Rylance. He can be a great actor at times, but he can also be a pretty poor one as well, and his empty-headed characterisation of Flitcroft is a resounding flop. He doesn’t even seem to be enjoying playing golf that much, nor does he seem to take any glee in provoking the stuffed shirts keeping him down. So…what’s he even doing? Why’s he doing this? The film tries to portray his mania for golf by giving him surrealist dream sequences where he chases after a giant golf ball, but although quite pretty, these scenes do little to make his motivations any more tangible. I’ve long held that all you need to make an audience invest in a character is show them what they’re passionate about, but for all his demonstrated efforts, I never once felt shared or even believed Maurice’s passion for golf while watching this film.

Simon Farnaby saw great success with his work as writer for the resoundingly brilliant Paddington 2, but sadly what gems are to be found in The Phantom of the Open are soon lost in an unimaginative and rigidly conventional telling of a story you can only believe had more potential than was actuated onscreen. This should’ve been really good, all the pieces seem to be here for a real crowd-pleaser, but it’s just all so safe and uninspired.

Written by Hal Kitchen

Primarily a reviewer of music and films, Hal Kitchen studied at the University of Kent where they graduated with distinction in both Liberal Arts BA and Film MA, specializing in film, gender theory and cultural studies. Whilst at Kent they were the Film & TV sub-editor and later Culture Editor of the campus newspaper InQuire and began a public blog on their Letterboxd account.
Hal joined 25YearsLaterSite as a volunteer writer in May 2020 and resumed their current role of assistant film editor in November 2020.

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