Does it eat away at Mark Rylance, that his film career missed the late ‘90s/early ‘00s boom times for the Brit-spirational underdog comedy? Probably not; he spent much of that era running through a stunning list of Shakespeare stage productions, and still made time for a Bridge of Spies Oscar. But while Rylance’s subsequent performances have shown some range, he’s also been developing a persona that would fit snugly into movies like Little Voice, Brassed Off!, Tough Tossers and The Full Monty. (Only one of those is a title I made up.) It’s an extension of his Bridge of Spies role: A daft, politely uncooperative man who throws off traditional balances of power. With The Phantom of the Open, Rylance belatedly applies these eccentricities to his own true-life underdog-Brit opus.
In it, Rylance plays Maurice Flitcroft, a humble crane driver in mid-1970s Britain who, to take care of his wife Jean (Sally Hawkins) and their family, puts his own dreams on hold for so long that he doesn’t seem to be fully aware of what they are. In the opening framing device, he talks about a childhood stint with Scottish relatives, when he was briefly encouraged to pursue whatever interested him before returning home to the expectations of a lifer position at the local shipyard. Those initial interests appear to be arts-related—we see him dabbling in painting, and he meets Jean working on school plays—so it’s especially strange that, decades later, he lands upon a different obsession in middle age: He wants to enter the British Open as a golfer.
Far from a lifelong enthusiast, Maurice barely seems familiar with golf. In the movie’s telling, the sport catches his fancy by airing on one of three available channels during a chance late-night flipping session (enabled by a new, tethered-to-set remote control!). In any event, he’s smitten, and his lack of knowledge becomes an advantage; when he fills out paperwork for the Open, he doesn’t think it’s a big deal to check off “professional,” and tournament officials trust him despite a messy application.
With Maurice playing an uneven game, trained in its rules but not its social customs, the stage seems to be set for a real-life British Happy Gilmore; Rhys Ifans plays British Open official Keith Mackenzie, the de facto snob in this slobs-versus-snobs scenario, who wants Maurice off the green. How will Maurice buck the odds, and a competition-worst first-round score, to become a contender?
The best thing about The Phantom of the Open, apart from the chummy company of Rylance’s performance (even as it constantly threatens to turn into shtick), is the way it sidesteps this question. It is not necessarily in the purview of a middle-aged amateur to become a golf prodigy, and Maurice’s persistent enthusiasm (and enthusiastic persistence) are more the story here. Unfortunately, lacking certain underdog/comeback clichés by design, the film must find another source of drama, wandering into a contrived, lopsided parent-child conflict. Maurice’s dedication to playing championship-level golf against all good sense drives a wedge into his relationship with his son Michael (Jake Davies), who is less supportive than younger siblings Gene and James (Christian and Jonah Lees, respectively)—and a lot less interesting, too. It’s rough going, being the stuffy normal guy in a family full of eccentric dreamers, and the movie doesn’t spend much time in Michael’s sensible shoes.
Director Craig Roberts clearly has an affinity for warmly drawn oddballs: He’s probably best-known as the lead kid in the charming coming-of-age drama Submarine (itself directed by actor Richard Ayoade). Perhaps also drawing on his music-video experience—he helmed the clip for the terrific Los Campesinos! single “Avocado, Baby”—he attempts to jazz up Phantom with some whimsical flourishes: Whip-pan transitions, brief fantasy sequences and a generally light touch cut through (some of) the treacle.
But the movie never turns into a full-tilt caper, even as the obligatory end-credits appendix hints at enough material to inspire one. It’s stuck, charmingly and a little wanly, in another era. “Love your mistakes,” says Maurice. It’s good advice, though from a movie less bold or inspiring than its strange, affable hero.
Director: Craig Roberts
Writer: Simon Farnaby
Starring: Mark Rylance, Sally Hawkins, Rhys Ifans, Jake Davies, Christian Lees, Jonah Lees
Release Date: June 3, 2022
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.