The Phantom of the Open review: When Rylance is on screen everyone’s a winner

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O God, not another lovable British loser! That’s what every vaguely cynical film-goer will think upon hearing the synopsis of this comedy about record-breaking golfer Maurice Flitcroft (Mark Rylance).

Flitcroft became news in 1976, when he played in the Open Championship and, during the qualifying competition, scored 121 (for those unfamiliar with golf, high scores are bad). Craig Roberts’ film explains how Maurice got to the tournament and what he did next. It’s gorgeously acted and the slapstick made me cry with laughter.

It’s 1975. Flitcroft, from Barrow-in-Furness, is 46 years old and living with his wife, Jean (Sally Hawkins) and their sons. He is also facing redundancy, after years of working as a shipyard crane-operator. By chance, while watching TV, he catches the end of the British Open, witnessing the triumph of Tom Watson.

Flitcroft wants to join the club. I mean he literally just wants to join his local golf club. But because he’s working class, and no spring chicken, he’s treated like a joke. Our hero is smart enough to know when he’s being shat on and, rather than go home, decides to aim bigger. His innocence/ignorance allows him to exploit a loophole in the admissions process for the British Open. And – whoosh! - there he is, doing his humble strut on the world stage, smiling anxiously as his official credentials are announced (remember, he has no credentials). When it’s time for him to take his first shot, he does so with his eyes shut.

Flitcroft scored 121 in qualifying (handout)
Flitcroft scored 121 in qualifying (handout)

Rylance digs deep to make this character thrillingly unpredictable. Like Meryl Streep, who a few years ago played the enthusiastic but dire singer Florence Foster Jenkins, Rylance finds dignity in the most delusional of statements.

Just as importantly, Simon Farnaby’s script is brilliant at muddying the waters of Flitcroft’s naiveté. Whether accidentally or on purpose, Maurice keeps scoring points against his adversaries. In the film’s second funniest segment, he takes part in another British Open, pretending to be a Frenchman, “Gerald Hoppy” (the name of Flitcroft’s obnoxious boss at the shipyard is Gerard Hopkins). Through golfing, Maurice is able to play the part of a powerful man. He’s an actor, in other words, and he’s perfectly capable of writing his own subversive scripts.

Cast and crew over-do the schmaltz towards the end. And, when we see the real Flitcroft, in archive footage, it’s clear how much sugar has been added to this (metaphorical) cup of tea. Still, I swallowed it. Rylance’s Maurice is truly adorable. When he’s in the frame, everyone’s a winner.

102mins, cert 12A

At the BFI London Film Festival on Wednesday October 13, then in cinemas April 2022

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