Dan Webster reviews " The Phantom of the Open"
We in the United States tend to deify sports – though, in all honesty, the impact most sports tend to have on culture is a world-wide phenomenon. This is true whether we’re talking about ping-pong in China, cricket in India, soccer in Europe, football here at home – or golf in the United Kingdom.
As the movie “The Phantom of the Open” points out, British attitudes in particular don’t just equate sports with truly Earth-shaking events, they tend to reflect social-class attitudes, too. Yes, you have your rowdy fans at, say, Manchester United soccer matches. Yet those who prowl the fairways of the British Open, while more urbane not to mention respectful, are no less fervid.
To some of those among the urbane crowd, however, they’d just as soon never have to mingle with the rowdies. Class distinctions being what they are, golf guilds are not easily open to your average UK working-class sports fan.
This, at least, was the situation in 1976 that faced a regular guy from Northern England named Maurice Gerald Flitcroft. A career crane operator who had never played a round of golf on a bona-fide course, Flitcroft fudged … oh, let’s be frank, he faked his credentials to earn a spot in that year’s qualifying tournament for The Open.
(Quick digression here: In 2017, the governing body of British golf dropped the British from the tournament’s name. It is now referred to simply as The Open, as opposed to the American version, which is called the U.S. Open.)
But back to Flitcroft: He got into the qualifying tournament by posing as a professional. And, not surprisingly, he promptly shot a score of 121, which was a full 49 strokes over par. The good news is that Flitcroft’s exploits earned him a degree of fame – and a 2010 biography titled “The Phantom of the Open,” from which the movie – directed by Craig Roberts – was adapted. The bad news is that Flitcroft, who passed away in 2007 at the age of 77, was banned from playing in future tournaments.
As with all such biographical studies, Roberts and screenwriter Scott Murray take the basics of Flitcroft’s life and embellish them. After his initial, failed attempt to quality for The Open, and being banned, he attempted several more times to gain entry under a variety of pseudonyms – one being the comically conceived Arnold Palmtree. Yet nothing, even disguises, worked.
His popularity spread, though, especially among those golfers who understand just how difficult the sport can be. In 1988 he and his family even were invited to come to a club in Grand Rapids, Michigan, by the club’s head professional as a tribute to all golfers who don’t have the talent to break 90.
All of this is covered in Roberts’ film, including the other strange fact that his two younger sons – twins, in fact (played by Christian and Jonah Lees) – were at one time international disco-dancing champions.
To add a bit of drama to the story, the film casts Flitcroft’s stepson (played by Jake Davies) as a junior official of the very shipping company for which his stepdad works. And it is he who, ashamed by Flitcroft’s antics, underscores the down side of such public buffoonery.
Still, the overall feel of “The Phantom of the Open” is one of lighthearted fantasy, with Sally Hawkins playing Flitcroft’s wife Jean, whose enduring support of her husband is similar to that shown by Amy Madigan’s character in the 1989 baseball film “Field of Dreams.” And, speaking of dreams, Roberts even at times visualizes Flitcroft’s ambitions as virtual waking dreams, flying through the air and circling a golf ball – almost as if he were Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince.”
Some viewers might find such filmmaking tricks tiresome and unnecessary, especially given Rylance’s portrayal. An Oscar-winner for 2015’s “Bridge of Spies,” Rylance plays Flitcroft as a decent kind of everyman, innocent enough to think he might be able to succeed in his fool’s errand yet ingenious enough to know how best to thumb his nose repeatedly at his supposed superiors.
In his hands, “The Phantom of the Open” manages, in golf parlance, to break par without having to take more than a couple of mulligans along the way.
For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.
Besides being a film critic for Spokane Public Radio, “Movies 101” host Dan Webster writes the Movies & More blog for Spokane7.com.