The Phantom of the Open | ★★★ | Opens in theaters Friday, June 24
The virus. The economy. Ukraine. The climate. Insurrection.
The stakes feel awfully high these days and it can be rough on the psyche. I don’t think we’re supposed to constantly toggle between rage and despair, as a people. The good news is that the movies can be genuinely useful in times like these by distracting us with some seriously low-stakes situations.
To wit: The Phantom of the Open, a slight and entirely diverting British sports comedy, in theaters this Friday. English actor Mark Rylance headlines as Maurice Flitcroft, the real-life amateur golfer who infiltrated the elite British Open in 1976, posting the worst score in the history of the event. Flitcroft’s antics, famous in golf circles, were powered by equal parts naïveté and audacity. He simply sent in an application, the paperwork went sideways, and next thing he’s on TV with Tom Watson.
Flitcroft became a kind of folk hero after that, especially among amateur golfers and the sporting press of the day. The British Open is one of the snootiest gatherings in the Western world and Flitcroft’s blue-collar heroics were a middle finger to the snobs.
Director Craig Roberts takes the bones of Flitcroft’s real-life biography and fleshes out an amiable story about golf’s elitist nonsense and the power of family love. It’s a winning combination. There’s not much at stake here—no apocalyptic dilemmas, no violence, no real aggression, even. Phantom induces pleasant feelings the old-fashioned way, by earning them with stylish, well-crafted comedy.
Approximately 65 percent of the good feelings in Phantom are generated by veteran British actor Sally Hawkins, who takes the typically thankless spouse role and turns it into something better. Hawkins is famous for this kind of maneuver. She’s usually the best thing about any movie she’s in, and her billion-watt smile should really be considered a global alternative energy source.
As Maurice’s wife Jean, Hawkins brings warmth and wisdom to a story that regularly verges on slapstick. Her performance provides the critical emotional grounding that makes the rest of the comedy work. It’s an axiom that so many filmmakers miss: jokes are funnier when you really care about the people involved.
Rylance, meanwhile, gives a performance that expertly dances away from the traditional pitfalls of the “holy fool” archetype. Maurice isn’t all there, clearly. His earnestness and openness suggest a man unfamiliar with society’s cynical rules of engagement. But Rylance reveals Maurice in layers, and there’s a hint of the immortal Trickster in his manner. His schemes are modest and harmless, but they’re still schemes. He’s like a normcore pixie, sprinkled with the impossible luck of the faerie folk.
The supporting characters seem like screenplay inventions but evidently are true to life. Maurice’s twin teenage sons really were the world disco dancing champions of 1976, though I’m not sure how official any of these rankings are. The plot meanders around a bit like this, but incident is subordinate to character here. The story of Maurice Flitcroft could have gone a dozen different ways. Director Roberts found one of the more interesting approaches.
If his technique feels a little heavy-handed, that’s easily forgiven. The sports comedy has certain requisite beats, and Roberts’s take on the training montage is funny, at least. His attempts at stylized hallucinations don’t really land—think The Big Lebowski but with golf instead of bowling. And the intrusive musical score is a distraction.
But you know what? Who cares? At least the entire goddamn world isn’t collapsing, and the most serious crime is 1970s casualwear. The Phantom of the Open is a respite, humbly submitted by Britain’s professional filmmaking community. We’ll take it! Thanks, guys.
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