By Richard Ades
Maurice (Mark Rylance) seems unphased when he learns he’s finished dead last in the qualifying round at the British Open. After all, he explains cheerfully, it’s the first round of golf he’s ever played.
The Phantom of the Open, which tells the story of a rank amateur’s participation in the prestigious golf tournament, would seem far-fetched if it weren’t based on fact. In 1976, a working-class Brit named Maurice Flitcroft really did stumble into the tournament, where he played so abominably that officials realized he never should have been allowed on the fairway.
How did he get there in the first place? And why?
Actor Rylance, working under Craig Roberts’s direction, depicts Maurice as a naive shipyard worker who fails to recognize his own limitations. After learning his job might not last forever, he happens upon a news story about the Open’s 1975 winner and the hefty purse he took home. Thinking this is a sign that golf will be his new career, Maurice decides to enter the 1976 tournament despite the fact that he’s never even picked up a club.
Simon Farnaby’s script, based on a book by Scott Murray, tells the seemingly tall tale in a homey, funny and good-natured way. Flashbacks explain that Maurice married single mom Jean (Sally Hawkins) and provided the fatherly support that helped her son Michael (Jake Davies) grow up to be a successful professional. He also supported the couple’s twin sons James and Gene (Jonah and Christian Lees) in their decidedly less-practical quest to become world-class disco dancers.
Indeed, “support” could be the family’s watchword, which is why no one questions Maurice’s decision to enter a major golf tournament despite his lack of experience. Eventually, though, the more worldly Michael pushes back against his stepdad’s pie-in-the-sky ideas, leading to a father-son argument that threatens their happy home.
Committed performances by Rylance, Hawkins and others help to sell characters defined not only by their decency but by absurd levels of optimism and naivete. Along with Roberts’s savvy direction, they also help to sell a script that sometime slices into predictable territory in service of its upbeat sentimentality.
Once the hazards are crossed and the scorecards are added up, the flick emerges as an irresistible tribute to a real-life Brit who became a hero simply by refusing to take “no” for an answer.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
The Phantom of the Open (PG-13) opens June 24 in select theaters.