The Phantom of the Open

With layoffs looming over the Vickers Shipyard where he worked as a crane operator, 46 year-old Maurice Flitcroft (Mark Rylance) happened to catch American golfer Tom Watson win the 1975 British Open on his new television set.  Inspired by the amount of the prize money, Maurice had his wife Jean (Sally Hawkins) fill out an entry form, where he claimed to be a professional as amateurs had to proclaim a handicap, something he lacked for never having played.  Maurice went on to become a folk hero in 1976 for scoring 121, 49 over par, the worst in championship history.  Furious, Royal and Ancient secretary Keith Mackenzie (Rhys Ifans) banned him from contests and clubs, but that didn’t stop “The Phantom of the Open.”

Laura's Review: C+

When Simon Farnaby’s ("Paddington 2”) first attempt to make a movie about Maurice Flitcroft fell through, he gathered his research and wrote a book with Scott Murray instead.  Now he’s adapted that book for this screenplay and director Craig Roberts ("Eternal Beauty") has made something that resembles the Australian comedy “The Castle” by way of "Happy Gilmore.”  It has its moments, but after “Don’t Look Up,” Oscar winner Mark Rylance’s approach to comedy appears to be popping in a dental appliance and acting spacey and the filmmakers’ cuddly approach rings false.

The film paints Maurice as a tender hearted dreamer who fell madly for a secretary where he worked viewing her charity work developing stage shows with disabled kids.  Jean was the unwed mother of Michael (Jake Davies, "Artemis Fowl") at a time when that status practically branded her untouchable, so she views Maurice as her knight in shining armor.  When the story begins, they live in a council house in Barrow-in-Furness made chaotic by Maurice’s adventures with the television remote and his and Jean’s twins, Gene (Christian Lees, FX's 'Pistol') and James’ (Jonah Lees, "Tale of Tales") constant disco dancing (the duo would become world disco dancing champions).

Armed with his cheap mail order golf clubs (minus the fore wood left in the car), a pink bucket hat, argyle vest, used shoes and Gene as his caddy, Maurice’s obvious unfamiliarity with everything golf related draws attention from the Open audience.  At home, his appearance on TV draws cheers, but in the office, where Michael is rising in the shipyard’s management ranks, it causes embarrassment and Maurice’s job.  The Sun reporter Lloyd Donovan (Ash Tandon) smells a story and soon Maurice is being celebrated as ‘the worst golfer in the world’ (a claim Maurice indignantly denies, despite his failure on a TV talk show’s putting green).  But he’s still determined to win the British Open, entering again and again under assumed names, bad wigs and fake mustaches.

Sally Hawkins embodies optimistic warmth and her Jean anchors the Flitcroft family, so it is rewarding to see a late scene built around her when the family is invited to Grand Rapids’ Blythefield Country Club on the tenth anniversary of its Flitcroft tournament, where the worst score wins.  That really happened, but did Mackenzie really lead a mob in a chase over the greens attempting to catch Maurice and his buddy Cliff (Mark Lewis Jones, HBO's 'Chernobyl') in a stolen golf cart?  Kudos to music supervisor Phil Canning for setting that scene to ‘Ride Like the Wind,’ but this is a film that appears to take quite a few liberties.  If a picture captured Flitcroft walking behind Seve Ballesteros in 1976, Farnaby has him meeting the man in the lockers before play, giving the pro folk wisdom about embracing one’s mistakes.

Production and costume design segue from the early ‘60’s into the 80’s without overdoing period clichés, but the less said about Roberts’ attempts at fantasy sequences the better.  “The Phantom of the Open” is an entertaining romp, but it’s so broad, it’s like recasting “Caddyshack’s” gopher as a lovable dreamer.

Robin's Review: C

In 1976, Maurice Flitcroft (Mark Rylance) entered the prestigious British Open. There is one little snag, though. Maurice has never played a round of golf in his life. But, that does not stop the plucky guy from playing, because of a rules loophole, in the Open and, to everyone’s surprise, he becomes “The Phantom of the Open.”

Here is a case, I think, that the idea for the movie – a consummate hoaxer gets to play in the British Open without credentials – is better than its execution. And, I think this is because it misrepresents its hero, Maurice. Here, with director Craig Roberts, the man is shown as a bit of a bumbler, as depicted by Mark Rylance, but that is not what I learned about the man. Ample literary license appears to have been taken.

Maurice Flitcroft, with his entry in the British Open, earns him the “honor” of the “worst round in the golf classic’s history.” But, as I read about the man and his cons, I realized that I would rather be told that story. What I got, instead, is a sanitization of his life that shows Maurice as a bit of a simpleton, and I do not think that is true. The great Sally Hawkins as Flitcroft’s loving and supportive wife, Jean, is wasted in what is no more than a minor role.

Maurice Flitcroft had a fascinating life that he built on his British Open notoriety. A straightforward, and less corny, telling of his story would have served us all better.

Sony Pictures Classics opens "The Phantom of the Open" in select theaters on 6/3/22, expanding in subsequent weeks.