“Life is not an oyster,” says Maurice Flitcroft in “The Phantom of the Open,” a new feel-good film starring Mark Rylance and now playing in theatres. “It’s a barnacle.” It’s a rare moment of despair for the endlessly optimist man who followed his passions, in an unlikely journey to becoming a British folk hero.
Flitcroft, a 46-year-old crane operator I the same shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness, England, where his father and grandfather worked, but after dabbling in painting, music and even stunt driving, he adopted the Oscar Wilde quote, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,” as his mantra.
He encourages his wife Jean (Sally Hawkins), his stepson Michael (Jake Davies) and twins Gene and James (Christian and Jonah Lees) to go for it and live their dreams.
In 1976, facing unemployment, Flitcroft takes up golf with an eye toward playing in the oldest golf tournament in the world, the British Open. He’s never played before, but has determination, heart and a belief, “an open championship should be open to everyone.”
Unbelievably (although this is a true story) he qualifies and in the qualifying round scores a catastrophic 121, 49 over par, a record for worst score that has yet to be broken. British Open organizer Keith Mackenzie (Rhys Ifans) is outraged—”I want him banned from every club in the country!”— but the press love the plucky golfer’s underdog story and the public, both at home and abroad, embrace him as an inspiration. “Practice is the road to perfection,” he says.
“The Phantom of the Open” is as sweet as Flitcroft’s tea. He takes six sugars in every cuppa, and that sugar rush keeps him and the movie moving forward.
Falling in line with Brit, true-to-lie-feel-good movies like “Fisherman’s Friends,” “Eddie the Eagle” and “Calendar Girls,” or jovial television shows like “Ted Lasso,” this one is kept aloft by masterfully amiable performances from the cast led by Rylance and Hawkins.
Rylance practically beams light as the upbeat dreamer. What could have been a caricature of a whimsical fantasist is tempered by the actor’s considerable comedic skill as well as his ability to find the core of humanity in every character he plays. It would have been easy to play Flitcroft as a broad character with a head full of dreams and nothing more, but Rylance sees to it that we see the person not the farce.
“The Phantom of the Open” is kind of old fashioned, but contains solid laughs and dives deep to reveal the class prejudices the crane operator suffered as he pursued bis dream. Most importantly, it is about the importance of following your heart, no matter where it takes you, to find happiness.