Barrow-in-Furness, 1976. Maurice Flitcroft (Rylance) is a shipyard crane operator standing outside the junkyard. Inspired by the US Open on TV and encouraged by his supportive wife Jean (Sally Hawkins), Maurice decides to compete in the British Open – without ever picking up a golf club in his life.
The Phantom of Openness is the kind of heartwarming, improbable real-life story that has become a mainstay of British cinema. Filed under the Sports Films subgroup Triumph of the Underdog – see Eddie the eagle and dream horse – The third feature film from Craig Roberts follows the original to the tee while still boasting an engaging, likable zero-to-hero story. Adapted by Simon Farnaby from the non-fiction book he co-wrote with Scott Murray, phantom shares the good nature that runs through Farnaby’s paddington 2 script, but lacks the suspense and emotional weight to deliver a sucker.
The film follows shipyard crane operator Maurice Flitcroft (Mark Rylance, who plays a kind of Paddington without a duffle coat) who, on the verge of possible sacking, took up golf, battered his way into the 1976 Open Championship and became something of a folk hero for having the worst round in the history of the tournament. Roberts outlines the Flitcrofts’ family life in broad, voiced strokes before Maurice finds his true calling as he plays the US Open on one of his television’s three channels, the moment delivered in an enchanting lo-fi interstellar fantasy that the idea of selling this unlikely conversion. As Flitcroft begins his golfing odyssey, Roberts mixes visual pizzaz (fisheye lenses) with crowd favorites, be they practice montages (there’s more ’70s pindrops than Radio 2), cute dog reaction shots, and comedic golf-kart car chases. The message “You can lose at sport, but you can still win at life” is loud and clear; Everything just comes delivered on a scattershot continent.
A sharper film should be made here about the media’s fascination with failure, but Roberts plays it safe.
The facts of the story are so quirky by nature – inspired by Maurice’s adventures as his twin sons (Jonah and Christian Lees) attempt to become world champions in disco dancing – it feels like Roberts and Farnaby could have quelled the whims better . The film comes closest to the truth in the relationship between Maurice and his rising stepson Michael (a strong Jake Davies), the latter embarrassed by his stepfather’s status as a prominent idiot. A sharper film about the media’s fascination with failure could be made here, but Roberts plays it safe: Even in his populist, moody wheelhouse, the potential conflicts are so frivolously waged – the Gulf establishment is being stalked by Rhys Ifans’ cartoonish pompous prig represented – you fear the film could fly into the unknown.
That this is not the case is due to Roberts’ affection for his characters and the performances he gets from his central couple. Sally Hawkins could play Flitcroft’s wife Jean in her sleep, but she invests warmth and sensitivity in the oft-used trope of the ailing spouse. Rylance is a fun, personable dreamer, but he also suggests other tones – at the point Maurice is in his car, he gives way at rock bottom The Phantom of Openness Soul.
What The Phantom Of The Open lacks in ambition or dramatic panache, it makes up for in easy-going appeal. Anchored by a mischievous Mark Rylance, it takes its cues from the hero of the story: a bit ramshackle, very lovable, always watchable.