Mark Rylance finds another custom-fit role in “The Phantom of the Open”, a biographical dramedy that you can file in the “so crazy that it must be true” category. Directed by Craig Roberts, this delightful stranger-than-fiction tale takes the true story of golf enthusiast/hoaxer Maurice Flitcroft and gives it its own hearty fictional spin. What we get is a warm and effortlessly witty crowd-pleaser anchored by yet another great performance from the always satisfying Mark Rylance.
If you’re like me, the name Maurice Flitcroft may not immediately ring a bell. But his story is one to remember. Flitcroft was a crane operator at a shipyard in the English port town of Barrow-in-Furness. But he’s most known for his successful attempts at gate-crashing The British Open golf tournament, the oldest and arguably most prestigious golf tournament in the world. His claim to “fame” came in 1976 when posing as a professional he secured a spot in the qualifying round of The Open Championship. Flitcroft’s lack of skill became shockingly evident after he shot an abysmal 49 over par, the worst score in tournament history.
The Open’s rules were promptly changed to keep Flitcroft from entering again, but that didn’t stop him. The next several years saw him continuing his attempts to enter, often under ridiculous aliases such as Gene Paychecki and Arnold Palmtree. He would even use physical disguises to hide his appearance from the tournament officials. Flitcroft earned himself a following of fans who saw him as the antithesis to the game’s more upper-crust reputation.
Roberts smartly latches onto the ever amiable Rylance who fits so snugly into the skin of Maurice Flitcroft (or at least the movie’s version of him). The story is penned by Simon Farnaby and based on a 2010 biography he wrote with Scott Murray. Farnaby is also the co-writer of 2017’s infectiously charming “Paddington 2”. And you can tell. There are some amusing similarities between Maurice and the anthropomorphic bear in the blue raincoat. Both bumble through their circumstances with a big-hearted naïveté, all while showing what a little kindness can do in the world.
The movie takes its share of liberties, downplaying the more mischievous side of Flitcroft’s personality and settling on his earnest dream of winning the British Open. Roberts and Farnaby have a lot of fun exaggerating the inherent zaniness of Flitcroft’s underdog story while also building up a playful family dynamic. Ultimately, its the film’s mix of heart and humor that makes it irresistible. And there’s such earnestness in Rylance’s performance that you can’t help but root for him, even in the final act where the schmaltz really kicks in.
The mustachioed Rylance endows Maurice with a lovable awkwardness both in manner and appearance. He’s humble and kind – traits that really come through in his relationship with his family. He married his wife, Jean (the always great Sally Hawkins) while she was a struggling single mother and adopted her bright young son Michael as his own. He and Jean later had twin boys together. Maurice would set aside his own big dreams in order to care for and support his family.
But everything changed during the summer of 1975 after Maurice has a late night epiphany. After watching Tom Watson win the Claret Jug, he decides to take up golf with plans of winning the Open Championship and its $10,000 top prize. And when I say epiphany, I mean we get a literal dreamlike sequence full of wacky imagery including Maurice being hit through the air like a golf ball and him ascending a staircase to the heavens made of green Bermuda.
Maurice buys himself a cheap set of clubs and a rule book and sets out to realize his newfound dream. And through a series of comical misunderstandings and a little willful ignorance, he finds himself in the qualifying round of the British Open. But his shockingly bad 63 on the opening nine holes sends the tournament heads (led by a hysterically conceited Rhys Ifans) into a tizzy while the media brands him as everything from “the people’s golfer” to “the great pretender”.
Back home, Maurice’s “fame” inspires his disco-loving twins, Gene and James (Jonah and Christian Lees) to pursue their dreams of becoming professional dancers. But the ambitious Michael (Jake Davies) is more interested in climbing the corporate ladder and is embarrassed by his father’s sudden notoriety. It creates a pretty obvious tension that goes in an obvious direction before reaching its obvious finish. But by the time we reach its syrupy ending, the film has earned so much goodwill that it’s hard not to be moved by it.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from “The Phantom of the Open”. It turns out to be a feel-good movie with a light and easy sense of humor. And while the biographical elements are present, there’s also a stretch where the movie takes the story’s goofiness and runs with it, delivering some pretty good laughs. And how can you not love Mark Rylance who always manages to find roles tailor-made for his strengths. He’s such a treat here and you can’t help but to fall under his spell, regardless of how silly or sappy things may get. “The Phantom of the Open” is out now in select theaters.