Fairway to Heaven
One of the pleasing cinematic developments over the last few years has been the rise to greater prominence on movie screens of Mark Rylance. Now, to be fair, Rylance has been appearing in films since 1987, but prior to Bridge of Spies in 2015 he was much more acclaimed as a theatre actor than a film star (although his game of hide-the-sausage in 2001's Intimacy did attract some attention). Being friends with Spielberg really can give you a career boost, obviously.
After various supporting turns in fairly big films, Rylance is now starring in a slightly smaller British film, Craig Roberts' The Phantom of the Open ('a stupid name', according to the people doing the marketing at my local independent cinema). There are a few British directors specialising in this sort of thing, so it didn't really surprise me that Roberts' name was vaguely familiar – but it turns out this is because I've been seeing him act in films for over ten years; this is his directorial debut (and nicely done it is too).
The film opens in the mid-seventies. Rylance plays Maurice Flitcroft, a forty-something crane operator from Barrow-in-Furness in the north of England. After a life spent providing for his wife (Sally Hawkins) and children, the looming prospect of redundancy leads Maurice to contemplate pursuing a dream of his own – namely, entering and winning the British Golf Open. Some would consider this to be a little overambitious, given that Maurice has never completed a round of golf before in his life (he has only just taken up the sport). But his irrepressible positivity will brook no doubts.
So, sporting history is made when Maurice Flitcroft participates in the opening round of qualifying for the Open and indeed makes an unprecedented score: 121, to be exact (Seve Ballesteros, who was one of the leaders and briefly appears in the film as a character, could only manage a 69). Flitcroft is catapulted to celebrity with rather more speed and accuracy than one of his own drives, and the golfing authorities promptly have him banned from every course in the country for bringing the sport into disrepute. But it takes more than this to keep a man like Flitcroft down...
Once you start digging into the Flitcroft story, the sheer proliferation of ridiculous details do lead you to doubt whether any of these events actually took place – Flitcroft's identical twin sons were semi-professional disco dancers, while later in his career he took to secretly entering tournaments under pseudonyms like Arnold Palmtree and Count Manfred von Hoffmanstel, occasionally making use of dark glasses and a false moustache. The film is at pains to stress that it is not inventing these things, but it certainly makes good use of them to produce a very funny comedy about snobbery, dreams, and slightly dysfunctional families.
If we're going to be specific, it's somewhere in the space between Eddie the Eagle (famous British sporting duffer loses everything but wins the hearts of the crowd) and The Duke (potentially irritating eccentric is vindicated, sort of, by his sheer human decency and quiet wisdom). Rylance's performance certainly belongs in the same bracket as Jim Broadbent's in the latter film.
On the other hand, the film walks a remarkable tightrope. Maurice Flitcroft may be the hero of the film, and you're certainly on his side throughout proceedings, which is surely the intention of the script and director. But at the same time the film quite openly presents Flitcroft as a figure not entirely unlike Forrest Gump or Chance the gardener from Being There: he comes across as a droning halfwit with an apparently fragile grasp of many key facts about the real world. Managing this trick is central to the film's success and very smartly done. I suppose you could argue that Flitcroft, according to the film at least, is a kind of holy fool (the vision he has which inspires him to take up golf certainly feels like a moment of almost religious ecstasy) who may indeed be one of the world's worst golfers but is filled with quiet wisdom which everyone around him eventually comes to appreciate.
As noted, most British comedies these days seem to bear a strong family resemblance to one another – they're often based on a true story, either set in the past or in an archaic version of British society (thus facilitating a warm rush of nostalgia for the audience), usually feature one of those loveable everyman characters of the type we were discussing earlier, seldom feature much to frighten the figurative horses, content-wise, and – perhaps most notably, especially when you compare them to films of past eras – there's invariably a strong moral premise which is carefully articulated in the course of the film. Again, this is seldom especially radical – be nice to other people, be part of a traditional community, get your work-life balance sorted out, and so on. The Phantom of the Open meets most of these criteria very comfortably.
This is not meant to sound superior and patronising. The British film industry seems to be in reasonably good health – much moreso than a few decades ago – and this is surely at least partly due to the fact it has hit upon a number of 'banker' genres like this one, which tend to bring in decent returns, certainly when they are well-produced. They may be a little on-the-nose and predictable, but this is equally true of many other popular genres. And The Phantom of the Open is certainly a superior example of the form, very well-played and scripted and directed with impressive skill.
So why does it feel like I am on the verge of qualifying all my praise for it? I'm honestly not entirely sure. In and of itself it is a very enjoyable film – but it feels like I have seen a huge number of very similar pieces over the last few decades. Perhaps it's just that it does feel extremely familiar, a variation on a very common theme. I stress again that I thoroughly enjoyed it; less jaded watchers will probably like it at least as much.