Despite traveling a formula just as well-trod as the Western or slasher, sports movies are not often given the same genre considerations as other modes of cinema. But just like those genres, the magic of a sports movie is in how it either subverts or knowingly conforms to genre expectations. The Phantom of the Open, a golf-based biopic and vehicle for beloved actor Mark Rylance, is not an unpredictable film.
Still, the filmmakers find more than enough heart in the template to keep us engaged throughout. The year is 1976, and shipyard crane operator Maurice Flitcroft (Rylance) falls in love with the game of golf. After submitting a blind application to the British Open, Flitcroft makes international headlines for finishing with a score of 121 in the qualifying round. Ostracized by the English golf community but endlessly passionate about the sport, Flitcroft begins a lifelong pursuit to be recognized by his peers, working with his wife, Jean (Hawkins), to write letters and even design costumes so Flitcroft can tour under assumed identities.
From the outset, The Phantom of the Open is not a clueless movie. Flitcroft knows he’s made a fool of himself; in early scenes, we are treated to Rylance’s murmurs of anger at the golf club professionals who make him feel like an embarrassment to his community. Golf has always been a sport with class considerations baked into its competitive field, and The Phantom of the Open puts that tension at the forefront of the story. Flitcroft’s passion for the game supersedes his ego, and he is willing to navigate his embarrassment – with the support of his family – if it means continuing to play the game he loves. And as the film unfolds, director Craig Roberts adds fantasy elements to complement Flitcroft’s journey.
Flitcroft’s introduction to the sport – the final minutes of the British Open on his tiny television – propel the would-be golfer into a dreamlike sequence, climbing from an enormous sand trap to a building-sized golf tee. Occasionally, Roberts also includes Jeremy Blake-style interstitials, blending color gradients and Isobel Waller-Bridge’s score in a manner best described as Punch Drunk Love-esque.
These flourishes are uncommon for a sports biopic and point to an underlying tension between the blue-collar narrative and the film’s more fantastical elements. Roberts can never entirely merge the two sides of the film; individual sequences often shine, only to clash with the surrounding edit. Thankfully, though, The Phantom of the Open has two rabbits in its hat: Mark Rylance and Sally Hawkins. Whenever the film struggles, it is not long before the actors bring their gentle love story back to the forefront. Hawkins, in particular, is divine, anchoring her character’s relationship in a blend of pragmatism and honest-to-goodness love.
There is a lot to like about The Phantom of the Open – and just as much to quibble over – but ultimately, the world can easily stomach a few treacle movies if they are this grounded in failure. The Phantom of the Open pits a blended family against an impossible dream and is unafraid to lean into the world’s harshness. But rather than mine failure for cringe humor, Roberts and company find a bountiful font of empathy within the gutter. There is nothing wrong with losing if we emerge a better person for our struggles. Bring on the losers.
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