As I watched the utterly delightful The Phantom of the Open the other day, I had an odd thought. Given all of the various movie franchises we’ve got crammed into our collective consciousness these days, this film provides an opportunity for something truly groundbreaking. What we need are cinematic universes where Mark Rylance gets to be awesome, and a separate one where we just focus on quirky British disruptors during the mid-to-late 20th Century. I mean, after the already successful The Duke and The Outfit, we’ve got all the required ingredients, and it’s not like it could get worse than the MCU, right?
This film represented a rare treat for me, as I got to experience it with complete strangers in a way that truly felt communal. The auditorium I was in was mid-size, probably about 150 total seats. Maybe 1/3 of them were filled. However, in my preferred spot at the center of the back row, I was adjacent to three other people, a couple one row in front to my left, and a very cute girl in front to my right. Over the course of the show, we all sort of fed off each other when it came to the unexpected laughs. It’s not that this isn’t a comedy, it very much is, but it’s somewhat uncommon when a quasi-serious subject has such funny dialogue, and none of it is subtle. Hell, that’s half the charm. By the end of the movie, the four of us were practically high-fiving one another after a good joke, and I even started flirting with the young woman in the lobby afterward. Didn’t have the guts to ask for her number, though. Ah well.
Anyway, to the movie itself. Set in the 70s and 80s, The Phantom of the Open tells the story of Maurice Flitcroft (Rylance), a crane operator at a shipyard who had some education and ambition in his youth, but otherwise lived an average but dignified working class life. He married a secretary named Jean (Sally Hawkins, who absolutely kills it in some scenes), and adopted her son Michael (Jake Davies), raising him to pursue his love of engineering into a much more lucrative position in the company than his own. The couple later had twin sons, Gene and James (Christian and Jonah Lees), who would go on to win an international disco dancing competition of all things.
When Michael informs Maurice that the government has bought out their company and that massive layoffs are likely (“redundancies” as they’re called in the UK), the middle-aged Maurice contemplates the next phase of his life. After watching the British Open golf championship, he’s inspired (through a hilariously trippy dream sequence) to take up the game and vie for the Claret Jug himself.
Having no experience, and not even knowing basic terms like “handicap,” Maurice declares himself a professional and registers for the Open, fooling the likes of Keith Mackenzie (Rhys Ifans), and others who run the show at St. Andrews. In 1976, Maurice played his qualification round, putting up a remarkably bad 121, 49 strokes over par, which to this day is the worst recorded round in the history of the Open Championship.
The story of how he was so easily able to (perhaps unintentionally) con his way into a qualifier for a major tournament is fascinating in and of itself, but writer Simon Farnaby (who also has a small role in the film) finds the sweetest of sweet spots in the utter absurdity of everything that followed, most of it true. Having suffered the embarrassment and indignity of having a commoner infiltrate their ranks, Mackenzie sees to it that Maurice is banned from all further professional tournaments. Undeterred, Maurice’s half-assed ingenuity and genuine tenacity exploits every loophole possible, including re-entering the tournament two years later under an assumed name, accompanied by a ridiculous mustache and speaking French in his thick English accent.
The shenanigans Maurice gets into for the sake of his hobby are expertly choreographed, giving it all a wonderful sense of verisimilitude. It’s fun when everyday people come up with schemes in movies that somehow pay off, but they’re never all that realistic. A good chunk of the fun here comes from the fact that Maurice’s “career” is half-baked at best and almost certain to fail at every turn, and that Rylance’s committed performance can make Flitcroft’s mantra of “Practice is the road to perfection” feel not only earned, but insightful. The makeup job only aids in selling the shtick.
The film has its cliché moments, same as any other, particularly when it comes to Michael. Every sports movie has to have an antagonist that tells our hero that what they’re doing is foolish. In Rudy it was his brother, in half the Rocky movies it’s some combination of Adrian, Paulie, or Mickey. The list goes on. Here it’s Michael, who, in addition to being a stepson with unclear feelings about his connection to Maurice, is constantly put in a difficult position, as he’s risen to the executive ranks of the shipyard, and Maurice’s antics put him in the corporate crosshairs.
But in something of a refreshing change of pace, Michael isn’t all that in your face about it. Yes, he has his tantrums, but it’s more born from socioeconomic status than any actual acrimony towards his stepfather. He’s worked his ass off to be the member of the family who gets a shot at what most of us would call “a better life,” but he’s still judged by the wealthier stuffed shirts as a literal bastard, and he has to conform to their notions of propriety (a status they earned purely through being born rich) or risk losing everything. He has a chip on his shoulder where he works tirelessly to not be mocked, and yet there’s his dad being completely carefree about becoming an object of mockery. This is in parallel to Maurice’s problems, as he’s a plebeian who invaded the playgrounds of his betters, and they just will not stand for it. The only difference is that Maurice’s travails are mostly played for good-natured laughs while Michael’s have real-world consequences.
Going further, it is to the film’s credit (particularly Farnaby’s script), that the class warfare issue is not shoved down our throats. A lot of British films have this weird thing where they respect the collective intelligence of their audience, and thus don’t feel the need to exposit us to death on a point where we all know what’s going on. For the most part, the film simply shows us the inequity of the Flitcroft family situation, rather than bludgeoning us with dialogue stating the obvious. And there’s no real subtext of grievance either. In the early moments of the film, when Maurice tells of his youth and how he only had a taste of culture and education before going to the shipyard like his father before him, it’s simply stated matter-of-factly, because we all know that in working class homes, especially in the 20th century, that’s just how it went for a lot of people. The lack of social mobility has always been a core problem with capitalism, and many simply accepted their lot in life. You see it quite often stateside when it comes to auto workers or coal miners. They grew up in these industries, expected a lifetime place in it for generations, and a sizeable number went into them knowing that it was a simple existence, but one that could still be rewarding and dignified. It’s why so many fight against any changes to the status quo, and why politicians see their plight as easily exploitable, even when they themselves are a chief cause of the workers’ misery.
Sorry, got off on a tangent again. What I mean to say is, the script takes it as read that we know how class struggle works, and as such it doesn’t patronize us with superfluous dialogue. When Maurice shoots his historically bad round, Mackenzie in a rage declares that he wants him banned. And that’s it. It’s just, “I want him banned,” not, “How dare that pond scum sully our good name with his presence? Who does he think he is, one of us? I want him banned! I want his wife banned! I want his children banned! That’ll teach him to meddle where he doesn’t belong and think above his station!” Do you see what I’m getting at? The class stuff is there, it’s on the surface, and it’s not even a little bit subtle, but the script and the presentation has enough nuance to not go over-the-top with the antagonism of it, instead wisely saving the excessive moments for the comedy rather than the melodrama. It shows a lot of discipline on the part of the writer, and it highlights just how good of an actor Mark Rylance truly is.
Even through thick eyebrows, a thicker accent, and goofy false teeth, Rylance brings out Flitcroft’s heart and humor in a way that few can. If nothing else, the sight of him closing his eyes when he takes a swing and holds it well past the follow-through is one of the best images of the year. For a story so simple and odd, he brings it full force, making us laugh harder and love deeper than any reasonable person would think possible for a tale about a man who got famous for sucking at golf.
Seriously, bring on the Elderly Goofy British Iconoclast Cinematic Universe already! EGBICU! EGBICU!
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Seriously, how great is Mark Rylance? Who would win in a golf match between Maurice Flitcroft and Charles Barkley? Let me know!