I wasn’t sure how to begin this review or how to convey my shrug-of-the-shoulders type of response to The Phantom of the Open (2021), a charming battler-against-the-odds story starring the excellent Mark Rylance.
While researching the names of the film’s minor players – behind Rylance, the always-superb Sally Hawkins and the barely-recognisable Rhys Ifans – I came across a review which appears at the foot of this piece.
It relates, a tad unkindly, to what I thought of the film but could not find the words for when discussing it with my peers. I liked the film but felt it just a bit too formulaic for my taste.
It is well made with great sets, costumes and hair, superbly capturing the horrors of mid-70s fashion.
Rylance plays Maurice Flitcroft, a deeply positive man whose crane operator job looks like dissolving in the austerity of 1975 Britain. His attitude is that this is an opportunity and, supported by his loving wife Jean (Hawkins), thinks golf may be the answer to his next career.
It is this complete naïveté about the world outside his home in Barrow-In-Furness which sees him strive to play in the the Open Championship, better known to most as the British Open.
The joke is that Flitcroft has never held a club, been to a golf course or realise that people like Jack Nicklaus, Severiano Ballesteros and Gary Player also attend.
Awfully snobby golf people thwart Maurice from his quest and his oft-repeated line about playing in the next Open is easily dismissed by them all as a joke as no one would be stupid enough to do it. The opposition reaches its height in club secretary McKenzie (Ifans) who, too late, realises Flitcroft is actually on the course at the 1976 tournament, scoring the highest number of shots of any previous Open player.
Ironically, while this is happening the previous year’s winner, Tom Watson – whose appearance on television winning the 1975 Open initially inspired Maurice – is missing the cut. Spanish teenager Ballesteros is capturing headlines as the leader into the final round.
What follows is a story of determination against injustice, humorous antics and cheeky impersonation which sees Flitcroft playing in future Opens under different disguises.
Maurice says it is an open championship, which surely means open to everyone. For a first timer he has a pretty good swing and he dutifully follows his own tenet, practice leads to perfection.
So while his appearance at the Open is laughable, he becomes a crowd favourite and symbol for hackers striving each week at their local course.
Behind this story is one of family. Jean’s son Michael (Jake Davies) is raised by Maurice. The couple have twins, Gene and James (Jonah and Christian Lees) who, encouraged by their father to dream big, turn their dancing obsession into a disco act that earns high accolades – but no money and no future.
This frustrates Michael, who has risen to management in the ship-building company for which Maurice works. The difference between living with an aspiring career and dreaming what is usually impossible is palpable but this all concludes in a heart-rending finish.
This happens during the most surprising part of the movie.
At Maurice’s lowest ebb, the family is invited, all expenses paid, to Blythefield Country Club in Michigan, USA. He is the honoured guest at the 10th anniversary of the annual Maurice Flitcroft Trophy, celebrating the worst score by a club member in a tournament played that weekend. (The real story is linked below).
Ironic humour, not often the long suit of Americans, is alive and well in Belmont, Michigan.
Maurice is a celebrity. He has renewed zest and wangles his way into three more British Opens, playing under ever-more unlikely names, including Arnold Palmtree, barely disguised reference to one of the greatest players of all time.
The Phantom of the Open is a feel good movie and it perfectly suited a wet Sunday afternoon’s viewing. Like Dream Horse (2020) it captures the essence of one person striving with effort, study and practice to do the impossible. Whether they achieve it isn’t the only measure.
As Maurice says, for every golf tournament there is one winner and 149 losers.
1976 OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP
MICHIGAN’S FLITCROFT GOLF TOURNAMENT
The story of Blythefield’s Maurice G. Flitcroft’s Spring Stag