As the Gospel of Matthew reminds us, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Blessed in the eyes of Christ and in athleticism are two very different things though, if there’s any lesson to be taken away from the new Mark Rylance movie Phantom of the Open.
The story based on the real-life story of Maurice Flitcroft, the 46-year old man who once held the title of the worst golfer in the world. In 1976, a random dockworker competed in the prestigious Open Championship in Britain. The man, with almost no golfing experience, turned in the worst recorded score in the history of the tournament. He would go on to become a minor celebrity fascination before dying in 2002.
Flitcroft would attempt several more times after his first failed entry in 1976 to get into the Open under false names but he quickly developed a negative reputation and was run out of the sport as an embarrassment, mostly being remembered by history as a C-list celebrity and accruing some fame after a golfing club in Grand Rapids, Michigan named an award after him.
He would eventually be the subject of a 2010 biography by Scott Murray and Simon Farnaby, that the new movie is based on.
As the movie presents him, Flitcroft is a lovable idiot. He’s naive, well meaning, optimistic and generally unconcerned about his reputation. He takes every failure on the chin as an opportunity to do better and refuses to take no for an answer, even as his obvious lack of skill or talent makes him a public embarrassment.
At least part of that embarrassment has to do with the nature of class. Flitcroft is a laborer from a port town that’s famous for shipping off it’s working class to the docks to work until the day they die. His attempting to work his way into the Open is met by the realities that golf is a rich man’s sport, where he can’t even afford the cost of official golfing shoes and has to lie his way into the game.
His performance makes him the enemy of the league, who consider his performance a financial liability. Flitcroft’s son eventually gets a job working for the Open and he’s regularly scolded for his association with his own father because of his boss being convinced that Flitcroft will ruin business opportunities if he keeps running around the country getting profiled as the “world’s worst golfer” on his courses.
That said, there isn’t much edge of Phantom of the Open as a story. As Flitcroft reflects later in the film, his meager celebrity did prove to give him the opportunities he wanted — being a celebrity golfer and galavanting the world with his beloved wife. He got what he wanted in the end, even getting opportunities to golf with great players.
It’s very much a light story, much like The Duke from earlier this year — which is also a story about naive lower class British characters with delusions of grandeur.
At times, this almost make the film feel weaker. The film’s editing and cinematography give it a lot of energy and create a handful of really beautiful and creative visual sequences that go well beyond what you’d expect for a low-stakes golfing movie. It appears though that the director likely thought he had a more outlandish vision for this, like he was creating a stylish and original underdog sports film with a classic pop-rock soundtrack and heavy hitting performances. In reality though, he’s made another film on par with the likes of Eddie the Eagle.