The “Worst Golfer in the World” sinks an Eagle in this heartwarming tale of the biggest underdog to ever play the fairways of The British Open.
DIRECTED BY: CRAIG ROBERTS/2022
Underdog stories. Why is that we love them so? Individuals, or groups of people fighting against insurmountable odds to achieve a great victory in a contest, overcoming cultural injustice, or sometimes to lose but at least losing in a way that earns the respect of one’s peers, is a theme that so much of the world resonates with. Usually this naturally finds itself deeply embedded in sports. Whether its well known films like Rocky, The Natural, Remember the Titans, Cool Runnings, Hoosiers, or Rudy, or maybe lesser known films like Run Fatboy Run, there is something that stirs inside us as we watch these characters overcome such great odds. If it turns out to also be something that really happened, then it can be even more inspiring.
Quietly slipping into a limited number of theaters this weekend is a small British film from Sony Pictures Classics, that is much like the underdog featured in its story. Many will be drawn to the cinema to see one of the many loud and noisy summer tentpole films that take the majority of theater real estate, but if they are really wanting to be entertained, they should be taking a swing with this incredibly true story that will actually cause you to smile long after the credits roll. Wouldn’t it be great if the number one film this weekend was The Phantom of the Open?
Based on the book “The Phantom of the Open” by Simon Farnaby and Scott Murray, Farnaby writes the screenplay about Maurice Filtcroft (Mark Rylance), a crane driver (operator) in an English shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness (near Liverpool) who is inspired to enter the British Open as a change of career when he finds out he is possibly facing redundancy at his work. With his business being nationalized, a lot of layoffs are coming. As he discusses with his co-workers what they might do if they are laid off, he decides that golf may be the sport for him after seeing a round of the 1975 British Open tournament played the night before on the telly (television).
Maurice, you see, is an eternal optimist. When he proposed to his wife Jean (Sally Hawkins), he promised her diamonds, caviar, champagne, and to travel the world. After his proposal, he is introduced by Jean to her “bastard child”, Michael (Jake Davies). Instead of turning tail and running, he lets Jean know that Michael isn’t a “bastard child” because he has a father now. He is someone who sees what is good in every situation. As he raises Michael, he encourages him to shoot for the moon….be an astronaut, or whatever, but just go for his dreams. When he and Jean’s twin sons Gene and James (Christian Lees and Jonah Lees) want to be professional disco dancers, he doesn’t tell them to get a “real job”, he tells them to try to win the top dancing prize in the world. He is just the type of man that believes such dreaming is practical. He is not discouraged that he is 46 years old, driving a shipyard crane in a job that he is about to be fired in, and that he has never shot a round of golf in his life. In his mind, practice is the road to perfection, so of course he can do it, if he only puts in the practice.
While The Phantom of the Open can easily be dissected down to a formulaic feel-good film about one man capturing the hearts of the British public, what comes off on screen and is felt by the audience, is something so much richer and more rewarding than what the simple 3-act screenplay might suggest on the surface. It is actually a film that took place during a dark time in the British economy, yet it holds tightly to a refreshing and endearing optimism that we desperately need in our own dark times.
As this film hits theaters, inflation is at a 40-year high, we are still emerging from a global pandemic, and war is ravaging the Ukraine. We need someone like Maurice Filtcroft today, who truly believes he can do what he sets out to do. Someone who holds their head up high, even as the world around him laughs him off and dismisses his attempts as either some kind of joke, or a naivete at a level previously unseen. Maurice largely takes the naysayers in stride, but even the most optimistic individuals can begin to listen to and believe the constant stream of doubt and vitriol some can dish out. When that lack of belief comes from those closest to you, it can shatter the best of us. Maurice’s struggle is no different, but coupled with his optimism is the love of his wife and family who gave him strength to stand strong in spite of the odds stacked against him.
Through it all, Mark Rylance is the true reason this film works as well as it does. He truly embodies Maurice in such a way that you feel nothing false about this man. Every look, silent gaze, heartfelt statement, surprised exclamation, and optimistic outlook comes through his remarkable performance. While Hawkins is largely in a supporting role for this film, she also anchors Maurice in a way that makes him even more believable to the audience, especially when you begin to see the struggles of life begin to weigh him down. This truly is a case of two Oscar nominees (and winner in the case of Rylance) elevating the entire project beyond was written on the printed page. Also, look for a very fun performance from Rhys Ifans as Keith MacKenzie who seeks to stop Maurice from ever entering the British Open again.
When Pixar’s Lightyear opens to $50 million-plus in its first weekend and is considered a box office failure, you have to wonder why Hollywood spends so much money (over $200 million in the case of Lightyear) for films that can lose them so much? What is amazing with The Phantom of the Open, is that comparably it was made for so little, but it is just the kind of film we all need to see. I’m not suggesting every person will like this film, but its a film that holds up an individual who truly was an underdog in every sense of the word. The fact that he scored the lowest round in British Open history, earning him the title of “world’s worst golfer” and yet still managed to inspire so many over the years is amazing. And with films like this, don’t we want to be inspired? Don’t we want to smile and be encouraged that there is good in the world, even if it’s in some pretty unexpected places….and faces?
Unlike those other sports movies where the underdog finally achieves something amazing, Maurice Filtcroft never came back to eventually win a golf tournament, or maybe even a single hole. What Maurice thought he had accomplished in his life only was felt by his family and a few close friends. In reality, his level of influence spread across the pond to America. Now, thanks to this heartwarming film, it hopefully can inspire people globally. So go see The Phantom of the Open, if just to help it get out of the rough where it is playing in the smallest theater at your local cineplex, buried behind all of the other latest sequels, reboots, or tentpole films. Let the industry know that maybe the future really is in these original, heartfelt, true stories that inspire us all.