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Review: ‘The Phantom of the Open’ is a slyly beguiling portrait of a golf legend

June 2, 2022 Updated Thu., June 2, 2022 at 2:37 p.m.

Sally Hawkins and Mark Rylance as Jean and Maurice Flitcroft in “The Phantom of the Open.”  (Nick Wall/Sony Pictures Classics)
Sally Hawkins and Mark Rylance as Jean and Maurice Flitcroft in “The Phantom of the Open.” (Nick Wall/Sony Pictures Classics)
By Michael O’Sullivan Washington Post

Just a glance or two at the trailer for “The Phantom of the Open” – a dramedy loosely based on the true story of Maurice Flitcroft, a British crane operator who somehow managed to compete in the 1976 British Open despite never having previously played a round of golf – might lead you to roll your eyes.

There’s something about Mark Rylance, who plays Maurice. Is it the fake teeth? The flat Cumbrian accent? The tone of twee amusement set by the jaunty score, which portends a silly, perhaps even clownishly derisive caricature, one that looks down on its protagonist with an air of superiority? Well, yes. But just hang on, and give this sly little gem of a film a chance.

Based on Scott Murray and Simon Farnaby’s 2010 nonfiction book of the same name, “The Phantom of the Open” is grounded in a fantastic performance by Rylance, who, as he did in the recent crime thriller “The Outfit,” brings the sense of a life wholly and fully lived – one whose edges and nuances extend well beyond what we see and hear on the screen.

As for those last two things: The screenplay is also by Farnaby, writer of the almost unreasonably pleasurable “Paddington 2,” and the direction is by Craig Roberts, a young actor turned filmmaker whose still-slender résumé (“Just Jim,” Eternal Beauty”) belies his stylistic assurance and commitment to emotional truth.

As if that weren’t enough of a pedigree, the ever-marvelous Sally Hawkins plays Jean Flitcroft, whose support for her husband’s pipe dreams – which continue well after Maurice posts a score of 121, the worst ever recorded in the Open’s history – contributes mightily to a story that isn’t ultimately about golf at all. So what is it about? Family, for one thing.

In addition to centering on the relationship between Maurice and Jean, “Phantom” includes a subplot that runs parallel to that of Maurice, who seemingly can’t stop taking stabs at professional golf tournaments, resorting to crazy disguises and pseudonyms – Gene Paycheki, Gerald Hoppy and James Beau Jolley, among others – even after being banned from competition.

Rhys Ifans plays Keith Mackenzie, the snooty golfing official from the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, the home of the Open, who becomes Maurice’s de facto nemesis. But, smartly, the film doesn’t dwell on the entire litany of Maurice’s scams.

That secondary subplot involves Maurice’s twin sons, Gene and James, played with enormous charm, respectively, by twins Christian and Jonah Lees. Gene and James are competitive disco dancers, and their pursuit of what they love doing, in the face of ridicule, enriches and deepens Maurice’s main narrative. There’s another son, Michael, played by Jake Davies; he’s a stuffed shirt who’s embarrassed by his father until – just watch the movie.

“The Phantom of the Open” isn’t a terribly deep or even important story. It’s the portrait of a person who became a sports footnote, albeit one whose name went on to become associated with joke tournaments like the Flitcroft Spring Stag, organized by the Blythefield Country Club in Grand Rapids, Mich., and honoring the highest-scoring players with facetious prizes. (Note: A high score in golf is a bad thing, as Jean is surprised to learn in the film.)

Despite its light subject matter, “Phantom” is about something more than an obscure British folk hero (although it is also that). It’s a story about following your passion, not because of the heights this path will take you to, but because it makes you happy. “Practice is the road to perfection,” Maurice is constantly saying in the film, with a naivete that is more endearing than annoying. Maurice never really gets there, but this modest film – as crafty as its subject – comes close.

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