The Phantom of the Open tells one of the craziest true stories I've ever heard. Normally, including photos/video of the real people at the end of movies based on actual events is annoying and unnecessary. In this case, it's welcome, because it confirms that, yes, the preposterous tale told here did indeed occur. The scenario is so unlikely that it would probably come off as trite were it not for the magnetic performance at the center.
That performance comes from the ever-reliable Mark Rylance. He plays Maurice Flitcroft, a British crane operator. He's spent many years diligently working the job so that he can provide for his wife Jean (Sally Hawkins) and three sons, two of whom are disco dancing champions. As forced retirement approaches, Jean suggests he do something for himself. With no real hobbies, Maurice doesn't know what to do until he stumbles upon a televised golf match. The game looks simple enough. Instead of merely playing for fun, though, he decides to enter the British Open Golf Championship, which he qualifies for thanks to a weird loophole. Maurice then goes on to shoot the worst round in Open history.
Most movies would make that the ending. The Phantom of the Open keeps it up front, taking a before/after approach that shows how this flight of fancy impacts Maurice's life in ways he could not imagine. The first half is mostly comedy, with him humorously manipulating his way into the Open and promptly proceeding to infuriate tournament chief Keith Mackenzie (Rhys Ifans, doing hilarious slow burns). Scenes at the Open are laugh-out-loud funny as befuddled spectators try to make sense of Maurice's utter lack of skill. Rylance is hysterical in how he plays the character's realization that he's gotten in way over his head.
The second half maintains some humor – just wait until you see what Maurice does to really get under Mackenzie's skin – while digging into deeper territory. Mackenzie works to turn him into a national joke, to a point where eldest son Michael (Jake Davies) becomes embarrassed by his father. The official also makes it virtually impossible to play in any club in the country. Hawkins gets to shine in these scenes, as Jean works tirelessly to help her husband find a way to engage in this activity he's come to love. The Phantom of the Open dives into an engrossing theme about how people who are really good at something often don't want people who aren't good at that thing to have opportunities. The golf community takes it as an offense that Maurice “invaded” their territory. Such snobbery only makes him more determined to keep playing at a high level.
Rylance performs a virtual miracle as Maurice Flitcroft. The story is so improbable that the film wouldn't work if we didn't believe his performance. At first, the actor lets us question whether Maurice simply isn't bright enough to realize that he's out of his element. As the picture goes on, that morphs into a sense of impishness. Yes, he overestimates his golfing ability, but he enjoys poking Mackenzie and the entire golf establishment. Rylance suggests that a life of adhering to professional rules and pushing down his own desires has primed this guy to break out when finally given a chance. It's magnificent work.
The Phantom of the Open has a whole bunch of crazy twists as it depicts Maurice Flitcroft's eccentric life. Director Craig Roberts sometimes leans too much on showy camera movements. His visual style would seem to be influenced by Paul Thomas Anderson, a filmmaker whose stories fit such a style. Here, it just seems out of place. Regardless, the movie pulls you in, thanks to Rylance and a story that is mind-blowingly kooky.
out of four
The Phantom of the Open is rated PG-13 for some strong language and smoking. The running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes.