Phantom of the Open: Hysterical tale of persistence with a true British spirit
Maurice Flitcroft (Mark Rylance) is a happy-go-lucky crane operator in Barrow-in-Furness. Close to redundancy during the 1970s recession, he is told by his wife, Jean (Sally Hawkins), that he’s sacrificed enough for his family, and that he should embrace joblessness to pursue his dream.
There is a glaring problem however: what even is Maurice’s dream? His life has passed him by and he’s found his dream in his family: wife, stepson, and his disco dancing twin sons, who go on to win the World Disco Championships.
But one day, while watching television, Maurice comes across a game of golf. In an epiphanic moment, he decides to become a professional golfer despite never having played before and is transported to the heavens in a sequence hinting at the Oscar Wilde quote he likes to repeat so much: “We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.”
What follows is a laugh-out-loud hilarious series of events as Maurice blags his way into the British Open, only to be repeatedly kicked out, finding comical new ways of re-entering, taking the disguise of a Frenchman and an American.
An element of class dynamics is introduced: Maurice brings his university-educated stepson, Mike (Jake Davies), into disrepute at work with his golfing antics. Mike is then asked to choose between his middle-class colleagues and his working-class family, his boss referring to the latter with such disdain that you root for Maurice so much harder.
Based on a true story, this charming comedy – fuelled by Isobel Waller-Bridge’s wonderful score – will quickly disarm you. It has the same quirky, fumbling awkwardness that director Craig Roberts has epitomised with performances in films such as Submarine, which also starred Sally Hawkins.
Roberts’ recent successes in direction (Just Jim, Eternal Beauty) have allowed him to cast other notable Hollywood talents in Mark Rylance and Rhys Ifans, and his choices display excellent British acting icons. Rylance, in a different kind of role than usual, is brilliant: he perfectly depicts Maurice’s stutters and mannerisms and embodies his good nature and wholesomeness to the core.
Take the heart-warming scene at the start when Maurice asks Jean to marry him. She introduces him to her son, born out of wedlock, who is derided as a ‘bastard’ at school. Maurice innocently assumes it’s the kids who are doing this, but no, it’s the teachers. Maurice proceeds to tell Jean he’ll be his Dad from now on.
Years later in a truly moving scene, Jean sits to tell her sons of how her life was upside down before Maurice entered and saved her from a life of despair. Moments of such strong sentimentality would have easily fallen off if not for a cast as skillful as this and some capable writing from Simon Farnaby, who also plays fellow golfer Lambert in the film.
The Phantom of the Open is a celebration of a British eccentric, seen in other recent films such as The Dig and The Duke. Completely British in spirit, and hysterically funny, it is a tale of failure, persistence and the joy that comes from being the underdog.