Mark Rylance, without question, is one of the best actors working today. The epitome of a character actor, he rarely gets chances to be a leading man, so when he does, it’s something worth celebrating. On the surface, casting him as a golfer in a sports film seems like a waste of his talents. Then, when you realize he’s playing real life golfer (well, “golfer”) Maurice Flitcroft in the biopic The Phantom of the Open, it makes more sense. Unsurprisingly, Rylance is great, elevating an amusing movie with a charming performance that yearns to make you smile. It won’t set the world on fire, but it certainly does entertain.
The Phantom of the Open is a charmingly offbeat sports story. Very little of what happens is surprisingly, and there’s not a ton of style on display, but watching Rylance is a pleasure. Almost single-minded in its determination to make you smile, it isn’t that far off from a Disney sports flick. While it lacks the extra polis and style of something like Hustle (reviewed here), it’s still easy to recommend.
Based on the true story, this is the tale of Maurice Flitcroft (Rylance), who successfully entered the 1976 British Open despite never having playing a round of golf before in his life. A shipyard worker, when his career as a crane operator comes to an end, Maurice is looking for something new to do. A dreamer and unrelenting optimist, with the encouragement of his wife Jean (Sally Hawkins) as well as his twin sons James and Gene (Jonah Lees and Christian Lees), he takes up the sport, planning to gain entry to The British Open Golf Championship Qualifying in 1976. Laughed off, his scheming actually gets him there, where he unsurprisingly shoots the worst round in Open history. However, what no one expects is that he becomes a folk hero in the process.
From there, Maurice bumblingly attempts to get into the Open again, running into tournament chief Lambert (Rhys Ifans) and his disdain again and again. As the years pass, he tries hoax after hoax to con his way past people like Lambert. It’s mostly in vain, but as a tribute to not giving up, there’s something to Maurice’s determination.
Mark Rylance is reliably strong in the lead. He makes acting look easy, as I’ve said before, but I don’t know that he’s ever played such a purely likable character. Rylance makes Maurice Flitcroft someone you want to root for. On screen for nearly every scene, the film is all on his shoulders, so this performance is not just great, but necessary for it to work. Sally Hawkins and Rhys Ifans are under-used, but Rylance is on point. Supporting players, in addition to the aforementioned Jonah and Christian Lees, includes Jake Davies, among others.
Director Craig Roberts and writer Simon Farnaby are trying hard to entertain here. They succeed in a low-key way, even if things never kick into a new gear. Roberts paces things well, but doesn’t bring an abundance of style to the production. Farnaby too has an efficient script, but nothing here will surprise you. Without Rylance, it’s fair to wonder if the flick would have been as appealing, but they have him, and it is.
The Phantom of the Open is another showcase for Mark Rylance and a largely pleasant sports movie. If you like golf and/or Rylance, or just sports films in general, this should be more than affable enough. My thumb is decidedly up, even if I’m not overtly raving. Keep your expectations in check, but this is certainly worth checking out.