In THE PHANTOM OF THE OPEN, we see the audacity of innocence. Based on the life, and wholly unlikely exploits, of Maurice Flitcroft, a name that all but demands to have a shaggy-dog story attached to it, it reveals how a man with no formal training in golf found himself competing at the British Open, and embraced by a fascinated public.
Maurice is played by Mark Rylance, in a role that is tailor-made for his quiet, everyman thespian aesthetic. Soft of voice, strong of character, with a disarming twinkle in his eye, he makes this eccentric shipyard crane-operator an icon of individuality who has not so much refused to let the status quo get him down, as failed to notice that the status quo might be interested in doing so.
It was the life for which class and circumstance destined Maurice, and he might have passed his time on earth doing just that but for a brief stint as a child-evacuee in Scotland during World War II. Billeted in a castle, the lord of the manor took an interest in Maurice and introduced him to the idea of possibilities. Introductions aside, things didn’t change much for Maurice upon his return, though. As a young man he found himself at the shipyard like his father and grandfather, where he met and married Jean (Sally Hawkins exuding warmth and heart as the perfect partner in cockeyed-optimism). She’s a secretary with an illegitimate son, Michael, and a weekend theater company for troubled youth, who finds in this soft-spoken man a better version of the fairytale Prince Charming. With the new responsibilities, Maurice puts aside his hopes of finding another sort of job, and joyfully settles himself into a life dedicated to them and, in due course, the twins that came along.
That brush with possibilities, however, gave Maurice a different perspective when layoffs loomed many years later. In his mid-forties, and with Michael settled as an engineer at the shipyards thanks to Maurice’s encouragement to look beyond his working-class roots, he looks forward to a second act that will give him his own chance to do what he wants rather than what needs to be done. For Maurice, that’s golf, something he had discovered very recently, but which ignited his imagination.
That magical moment is captured with the perfect cinematic hyperbole, a device used sparingly but to great effect throughout. In it, Maurice stares in rapt wonder at a televised golf game flickering on the screen thanks to a serendipitous remote-control mishap. He is transported to an animated fantasyland, floating gently through the starry skies. If there is any explanation for the experience of how inspiration strikes, this is the ideal way to convey it visually, and with Rylance’s otherwise laconic visage glowing beatifically with just the hint of a smile and eyes alight.
That, too, is used sparingly, reserved for Maurice’s discovery of what an actual golf course feels like, and when he pays tribute to Jean near the end. This is, like so many of Rylance’s best performances, a staggering achievement in understatement. It is also a performance that doesn’t just evoke an ordinary guy with an extraordinary dream, it also pays tribute to the dogged innocence that makes Maurice believe that simply filling in a form will allow him to play in the British Open. It makes those who fail to believe seem like the simpletons.
Suffice to say that in 1976, after less than a year teaching himself the game of golf, Maurice achieved his goal of participating in the world’s oldest tournament, which for him was the point, and just a starting point at that. The inevitable clash between dream and reality rendering him the stuff of legend, ridicule, and a loyal fanbase makes for a lively second half in which we are asked to ponder the true meaning of success. Told from Maurice’s point of view, his obliviousness to the sheer folly of it all takes on the overtones of an epic, punctuated with absurdity and disappointment as Michael’s (Jake Davies) stolid version of reality fails to find common ground with Maurice’s, who has encouraged his dancing twins (Christian and Jonah Lees) to pursue their own dream of competitive disco dancing. Future prospects be darned.
Yet this is the true essence of a feel-good film, and the best of that genre, in which we earn the right to feel good after our hero encounters trials, accepts them with equanimity, but refuses to be stopped by them. As he is oft wont to say, mistakes should be loved for the opportunities they bring. Yet, he’s also no push-over, more than willing to push back with the same dogged innocence at the ruling elite of the game who want to dismiss him with scornful condescension. Try not to cheer. Just try.
As we learn in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPEN, a title that refers to the headlines he engendered at his first British Open, there is nothing more aspirational, or unstoppable, than a man who won’t be defined by others, or stopped by rules he doesn’t recognize as legitimate. And no one better to hold up as an example of how to live.