Though Craig Roberts’s golf biopic does its best to rise above the common cliches of its genre, perhaps the biggest surprise offered by The Phantom of the Open is its release strategy. Here is a heartwarming period piece and none-more-British sporting underdog story starring national treasures Mark Rylance and Sally Hawkins that has been dumped too late to qualify for the current BAFTA season and far too early to make a dent in 2023, a baffling decision for a film that, for all its flaws, would play like gangbusters for a lot of awards voters.
Roberts’s crowdpleasing story focuses in on Maurice Flitcroft (Rylance), a shipyard worker in Cumbria who, in 1976, entered the British Open under false pretences and shot the worst round of golf in the professional history of the sport. It infuriated the Open’s organisers – here represented by Scottish stickler Keith Mackenzie (Rhys Ifans) – but gained Flitcroft a cult following, albeit at the expense of some of his family’s dignity. While a more conventional sporting dramedy might build towards a grand victory on the golf course, Roberts and writer Simon Farnaby instead hone in on the inner life of Maurice, to try and understand why he suddenly took up golf, and what holes in his life he was trying to fill.
Familial drama often takes centre stage. Maurice gets encouragement from his wife Jean (Hawkins) and younger twin sons Gene and James (themselves pursuing a dream of a worldwide disco dancing tour), but his growing infamy is a source of embarrassment for his older son Michael (Jake Davies), who is trying to escape their working-class origins through the corporate world. A lot of the character work for the supporting cast is pretty broad strokes, but the actors are charming, and Rylance’s Maurice is imbued with real soul by both the writing and his performance.
You see the years of disappointments in both life and career flash across his face every now and then, which keeps an inherently cartoonish story grounded, as does the very earnest love and admiration that Maurice clearly feels for his family. Roberts is very fond of these characters, though this insistence on sincerity can get in the way of the jokes, which are often more feeble than you’d expect from a Farnaby script, given his status as a Paddington 2 writer and Mighty Boosh veteran. Gentle amusement is the order of the day, which keeps things ticking along nicely towards the inevitable heartstrings finale, which is moving without reaching true weepie territory.
With the emotions kept at a calm simmer, Roberts only really lets himself be particularly bold when it comes to Phantom’s visual flair, which is where it really separates itself from its peers. Whenever we get an insight in Maurice’s mind, it’s always a kaleidoscope of surreal set design and colourful CGI skies, which prove very entertaining, though the frequent direct references to the 1978 Superman movie are mostly a confusing distraction. Phantom might not be a complete knockout on its own, but it is a charmer, and further cements Roberts as one of the more exciting and inventive young British filmmakers working today.