If Maurice Flitcroft hadn’t really existed, a British comedy would surely have invented him. A humble shipyard worker from Barrow-in-Furness who decided, on a rogue middle-aged whim, to enter the British Open despite never having played a round of golf in his life, he was practically a living, breathing Ealing Studios hero. That he managed to repeat the feat multiple times in multiple disguises over the years, earning himself the title of “the world’s worst professional golfer,” tips a real life into the realm of absurdity.
It’s tempting to say, then, that anyone taking on a Flitcroft biopic has a large part of the work done for them. The jokes write themselves, though in “The Phantom of the Open,” screenwriter Simon Farnaby and director Craig Roberts make them sweeter and spryer than they could have been, while a wide-eyed, bucket-hatted Mark Rylance plays Flitcroft with abundant generosity of spirit.
If anything, “The Phantom of the Open” is a smidge too cuddly. Having scored with the delightful “Paddington 2” script, Farnaby essentially writes Flitcroft as a larger, de-furred version of the lovably bumbling bear, stumbling catastrophically through assorted farcical scenarios and somehow emerging a winner even when he loses. Like those family films, “Phantom” preaches an inarguable message of kindness in the face of human cruelty — though in the process it dodges any more cutting, ironic comedy about a man whose legacy of delusional ineptitude could warrant a more jaundiced satire. If its cuteness is a little one-note, however, that shouidn’t stop this warmly received BFI London Film Festival premiere from becoming a roaring crowdpleaser when it hits U.K. screens in 2022. And while it wears its Englishness like a St. George’s cross on its sleeve, the film’s combination of broad slapstick and moist-eyed nostalgia should prove eminently exportable.
“I had dreams, but where I come from, it’s a small world,” Maurice explains in an introductory voiceover that offers a brisk summary of his life up to age 50: his low-paid, long-held job as a crane operator, his marriage to gold-hearted single mother Jean (Sally Hawkins), their raising of three sons, and, well, that’s about it for this little Briton. These opening reels of the film are its shakiest, as Roberts and Farnaby establish the Flitcrofts’ salt-of-the-earth Englishness in a shorthand form that only barely skirts condescension, while the filmmaking adopts an initial charm offensive — complete with dog reaction shots, feel-good vintage needle-drops and fish-eyed visual gimmickry — that’s all a little much. Roberts last directed Hawkins in the manically over-styled mental-health drama “Eternal Beauty,” and when it comes to the quirk factor, he’s still loath to say when.
Things settle into a more relaxed Britcom groove once Maurice, at a loose end with his children grown and retirement looming, finds his new calling — one that precisely no one else can hear. His sudden interest in golf, via a chanced-upon TV broadcast, is even presented as a kind of trippy religious revelation, with the humble golf ball a deified force, and the elaborate visual joke is intended to shut down any nagging questions as to why a sub-amateur golfer would enter a premier tournament. But enter it he does, and the fact that nobody stops him is a sly jab at the privileged, complacent gatekeeping of the golf establishment. “Why would anyone say they’re a professional if they’re not a professional?” asks supercilious tournament chief Lambert (Rhys Ifans), upon glancing at Maurice’s application.
Cue an amusingly shambolic training montage, leading into Maurice’s now-famously calamitous appearance at the Open — he shot a round of 121, the highest (or lowest, as it were) in the tournament’s history — and its fallout. Farnaby touches about as gently as possible on the media’s exploitation of Maurice’s anti-achievement, though the film is more interested in how our hero’s quixotic obsession alters the Flitcrofts’ family dynamic.
Jean remains staunchly supportive, while his twin sons James and Gene (Jonah and Christian Lees) are inspired by his far-fetched ambition to pursue their own dreams of becoming world disco-dancing champions. (Like much in “The Phantom of the Open,” this is a detail that seems overly confected but turns out to be preposterously true — though it wouldn’t have hurt to write the boys as actual characters rather than rubber-limbed props.) But it’s the agonized shame that eldest son Michael (a superb Jake Davies) feels over his father’s national-punchline status that gives the film a hint of soul behind its insistently smiley demeanor.
Rylance, too, is best when he lets slip a sliver of genuine hurt amid Maurice’s generally bluff nature. In the film’s loveliest scene — notable for its silence and simplicity against the busyness of everything else — he sits alone in the car on the night of his great Open failure, his face a tug-of-war between disappointment and elation. He’s lucky to be married on screen to Hawkins: Few actors could deliver the line “no one can say you didn’t try” with quite such sincere, toasty-warm empathy, even if she’s hardly tested by a stock supportive-wife part. (“You don’t have to look after us anymore, it’s your turn now,” Jean even simpers near the outset, as if she was ever going to come first in this story.)
A different, deeper, sadder movie would open up the secondary characters affected by Maurice Flitcroft’s strangely masochistic stunt, but it wouldn’t be as japey or audience-friendly or gosh-darn nice as this one. Twice, the film pokes fun at Maurice’s unwavering, straight-faced tea order — milk with six sugars, please — but it’s in no position to tease, really. “The Phantom of the Open” likes it just as sweet.