‘The Phantom of the Open’ Tells How an Outlandish Dream Made an Unlikely Folk Hero
Biographical sports dramedy “The Phantom of the Open” proves you’re never too old to dream big. Mark Rylance gives another excellent performance as Maurice Flitcroft, a working-class British man who became something of a folk hero after his disastrous attempts to qualify for the British Open in 1976, during which he achieved a record low score in the qualifying round. Sally Hawkins pairs nicely with Rylance as Jean Flitcroft, Maurice’s beloved wife and biggest cheerleader.
Maurice, who grew up poor during World War II, broke convention and had big goals even during his years of working as a crane operator. During his proposal to Jean, he promises her diamonds, caviar and world travel, despite his limited income. He stands by her even after she reveals that she bore a child out of wedlock, her son Michael (played by Jake Davies as an adult). Years later, Maurice and Jean have successfully raised Michael, who graduated college and now works in the corporate office of the company that employs his father, as well as twins Gene (Christian Lees) and James (Jonah Lees), competitive disc dancers (it is the mid-seventies, after all). Around age 46, Maurice starts to look for new opportunities as he faces potentially being laid off. One night, he stumbles across a golf tournament on television. He then decides to not just take up the sport, but to enter the British Open, despite never having played a round of golf. Because he calls himself a professional golfer on his application, administrator Keith Mackenzie (Rhys Ifans playing against type) gives him a stamp of approval.
Much like another true story dramedy about an extreme underdog in elite competition, “Eddie the Eagle,” “The Phantom of the Open” milks a lot of humor out of its protagonist’s ineptitude and grandiose delusions without robbing him of his humanity. The butt of the joke here is mostly Mackenzie, who is fooled by Maurice numerous times. After being banned from entering the British Open after his memorable debut, he dons multiple disguises to sneak in during the subsequent years. Maurice is not as good an actor as Rylance, as he is always found out, but not before getting the best of uptight Mackenzie.
The film also does a great job of exploring class issues. Maurice ends up being banned from every golf club in the area. First, he is denied admission due to his lack of funds and proper attire, and later due to what transpired at the Open. One has to wonder if, say, a dilettante middle-aged member of an aristocratic family decided to try his hand at competitive golf, would he be treated the same way? Probably not. Michael, for one, is not amused by his dad’s foray into the sport, which he only finds about after seeing him on TV in front of his supposedly posh coworkers. His elitist boss (Steve Oram) puts it bluntly when he basically asks him to disavow his father, saying he has to choose between being “one of them or one of us.” Davies gives a great performance as Michael wrestles with both his internal conflict and his conflict with Maurice, which intensifies after Maurice and Jean have to move into a trailer.
In the end, Maurice proves to be an inspiration, and he is able to make good on the promises he made to Jean during his proposal. His notoriety reaches all the way to Grand Rapids, MI, where a tournament is named after him. Western Michigan may not be Paris, but it proves to be the perfect setting for the Flitcrofts to grab some happiness. Through it all, Maurice and Jean’s relationship is the heart of the film, and her unconditional love for her husband during a period when lesser women or men would have lost faith in their spouses proves just how important a supportive partner is when it comes to achieving one’s dreams.
“The Phantom of the Open” releases June 3 in Los Angeles and New York, expanding to select cities throughout June.