The Phantom of the Open

Craig Roberts
Release Year:
Length (mins):
Simon Farnaby, Scott Murray
Mark Rylance, Sally Hawkins
Screening Date:
  • 6 Sep 2022
  • Categories:
    Comedy, Drama

    You don’t need to know anything about golf to enjoy this! Based on a real person, Maurice Flitcroft (Mark Rylance), who cons his way into playing in the Open. The author and co-screenwriter, Scott Murray, will introduce our opening film.

    Film Notes

    The Phantom of the Open: Gentle comedy makes the cut

    True-ish comedy celebrates ‘world’s worst golfer’

    There is no mention of this in Craig Roberts's enchanting, trueish comedy, but Maurice Flitcroft's quixotic tilt at the Open Championship came right in the middle of a particularly grim period for British golf. No UK player won the tournament between Tony Jacklin in 1969 and Sandy Lyle in 1985. It was, thus, particularly fitting that "the world's worst golfer" should card his unprecedented 121 in the summer of 1976. A crane operator from Barrow-in-Furness, Flitcroft turned up at the qualifying tournament having barely completed a full round on his home course and went on to enter the pantheon of Great British Losers. At least one golfer from the home nation was achieving superlatives (if that is the word).

    The most obvious model for Phantom of the Open – a title that doesn't work when spoken aloud – is Dexter Fletcher's unexpectedly strong Eddie the Eagle from 2016. Michael David Edwards was a better ski jumper than Flitcroft was a golfer, but both men tickled the UK public's taste for heroic failures. Like Taron Egerton in the Eddie movie, Mark Rylance plays the protagonist as a sweet-hearted naïf who genuinely believes he has a right to compete against the world's best. Early on, he meets the young Seve Ballesteros, a working-class player who spent more time hacking out of the parking lot than most of his calibre, and gets sound advice about ignoring the snoots and honouring his ambitions, however absurd. This Flitcroft is an avatar of post-imperial accommodation.

    Archival interviews suggest the real Maurice might have been a craftier, less ingenuous character, but Rylance’s sweet, on-the-spectrum version works nicely for a film that is so at home to soft edges and Hovis-ad streetscapes. The early sections take us through a kitchen-sink romance of the most charming hue. Maurice meets single mother Jean (Sally Hawkins) and, unconcerned about twitching windows, marries her and becomes a loving father to her son. Twins follow as the busy sixties give way to strikes, inflation and the decade that cinema can’t resist fetishising. Not even incessant needle drops from the Average White Band can distract from the impending redundancies. Saddled with too much time on his hands, Maurice catches a glimpse of professional golf on the telly and, noting a loophole, decides to enter the British Open (as everyone then called it before pedants began insisting on just “Open Championship”).

    Our hero may drive his friends and family bonkers, but he is the purest soul in a world with few properly evil spirits

    Simon Farnaby adapts his own similarly titled book on Flitcroft and, once you twig he also wrote Paddington 2, comparisons between the Peruvian bear and the Cumbrian hacker prove hard to resist. Our hero may drive his friends and family bonkers, but he is the purest soul in a world with few properly evil spirits. Even the blazered bigots at the Royal and Ancient are eventually won over and accept Flitcroft as a benign class of menace. As in the Paddington films, this version of England sometimes leans into the fantastic. Interiors have a theatrical boldness. The romantic northern exteriors will require little alteration when adapted for the musical stage show that someone is almost certainly now plotting. Writing Flitcroft's twin sons as world-champion disco dancers feels too much of a concession to seventies-sploitation, but, it transpires, that is precisely what they were.

    The film-makers work hard at stretching one moment of (in)glory into a feature-length yarn. Flitcroft, after that 1976 incident, continued to enter tournaments under fictitious names, but, like Mathias Rust, the German kid who landed near Red Square in 1987, he is best known for a brief splurge of headlines from a now remote era. The film does feel a little thin in its later stages, but the inventive performances – Rylance's in particular – keep the film aloft throughout. No bogie. Comfortably a birdie. Not quite an eagle.

    Donald Clarke, The Irish Times, 18th March 2022.

    What if Billy Elliot had two left feet, or the Brassed Off colliery band consisted of a washboard and a couple of kazoos? Could a plucky British underdog film still work if the only thing keeping its hero down was his own abject lack of talent?

    The Phantom of the Open proves it could. This uproariously brisk new comedy tells the strange-but-true story of Maurice Flitcroft, a shipyard crane-operator from Barrow-in-Furness who bluffed his way into the 1976 British Open golf championship, and went on to play the worst round in 116 years. Undeterred by the lifetime ban from all R&A tournaments and courses that followed, Flitcroft went on to infiltrate further high-profile competitions, including the Open again, under a string of unlikely aliases.

    Director Craig Roberts has turned Flitcroft’s story into a sly reversal of the now well-worn Billy Elliot formula: Maurice, played by Mark Rylance, is no diamond in the rough, but a nuisance in plain sight. Not a month after Jim Broadbent became an unlikely art thief in Roger Michell’s wonderful final film The Duke, Roberts’s film is another welcome revival of the old Ealing comedy spirit – the wit and silliness, but also the keen eye for specifically British eccentricity, and the recognition of class and community as highly fertile comedic terrain. 

    Maurice’s exploits delight not only because he can’t play golf to save himself, but also because his complete lack of socially obligated shame over this failing enrages Rhys Ifans’ Keith Mackenzie, the R&A’s pompous Scottish secretary and a classic jobsworth villain, right down to the blazer badge and tie clip.

    Rylance, a noted Shakespearean, and winner of an Oscar and two Olivier Awards, might not be the first person you’d pick for the buffoonish Flitcroft, who first appears on screen asking for a cup of tea with milk and six sugars. But he invests Maurice with a soulfulness that undergirds the silliness: he’s a holy fool in counterfeit Pringle, and deeply endearing despite his devotion to a cause that even his family – his loving wife Jean (a terrific Sally Hawkins), his strait-laced older stepson Mike (Jake Davies) and his disco-dancing teenage twins James and Gene (Jonah and Christian Lees) – can’t quite get their heads around. Roberts even stages his conversion as a sort of religious epiphany. While watching the sport on television late one night, Maurice experiences a vision – realised with charmingly handmade-looking special effects – in which he’s driven from an enormous tee into Superman-like orbit.

    Had The Phantom of the Open been more precious or winkingly self-aware, this might have felt like whimsy overload. But Roberts and his cast take an appealingly direct approach to the material: as in Ealing, every absurd touch rings amusingly true; I almost fell off my seat when Maurice and Jean fill out his application for the tournament, and under ‘handicap’ he writes “false teeth”.

    The not-remotely secret weapon is Simon Farnaby’s bountifully funny screenplay, which immediately works up a mood of bubbling amusement in a prologue that rattles through Maurice’s life to date – perhaps inspiration was drawn from Pixar’s Up – then maintains that impressive gag hit-rate for more or less the film’s entire running time, while making a point of sharing the punchlines around.

    Farnaby was also the writer of Paddington 2, and his style pairs well with that of the 31-year-old Roberts, whose direction feels more at ease here than in 2015’s Just Jim and 2019’s Eternal Beauty. Aspects still feel a little green: welding two scenes together with a rousing pop song and a montage is a bit of a go-to manoeuvre. But the songs themselves are well-chosen – Billy Preston’s immortal soul bop Nothing from Nothing radiates as many infectious good vibes here as it did in Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind – and offer a sparky contrast with Isobel Waller-Bridge’s swishily poignant mock-heroic score.

    Maurice might be ridiculous, but ridicule is not on The Phantom of the Open’s agenda. Rather, it’s a salute to a distinctly English strain of nincompoopery – and a wise reminder, with plentiful examples, that the joy of incompetence can outstrip the satisfaction of a job well done.

    Robbie Collin, The Telegraph, 17th March 2022.


    What you thought about The Phantom of the Open

    Film Responses

    Excellent Good Average Poor Very Poor
    34 (76%) 10 (22%) 1 (2%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%)
    Total Number of Responses: 45
    Film Score (0-5): 4.73

    Collated Response Comments

    What a terrific first screening!!! There were 115 members and guests present and you gave a rousing welcome to our guest Scott Murray, co-author of the book that the film was based. He did a marvellous job giving us some insight into the writing and adaptation process that the film went through as well as some lovely personal anecdotes. Many thanks Scott for taking the time to visit our little film society.

    We received 45 responses giving the film a score of 4.73…. not too shabby. This represents a 39% response rate.

    All of your comments are collected below: -

    “A skilful mix of humour, class war, family drama and some social commentary. Most enjoyable”.

    “A bright cheerful start to the season; thanks! Enjoyed the dry comedy, with the laid-back performance by Rylance, as resourceful but naïve, with a common-sense approach to life and golf. Both Maurice and Jean (the wonderfully understated Sally Hawkins) believe he can win the Open. It's a tale which has us cheering noble failures through spirited attempts, even though they have very little chance of winning. We have a sense his story could inspire greatness in others. The characters appear to be a caricature of themselves; the ex-con as best friend, an ashamed stepson, the slimy company MD, as well the stuffy organizer R&A president who wants Maurice away from golf forever, even in jail. We also realise the film criticizes the evident inward-looking world of golf, as it challenges the social elites at their own game. Good, though, that Flitcroft is not a figure of fun. Enjoyed the fantastical dream sequences, hints of Powell/Pressburger, leading to Flitcroft flying to a moon as a golf ball. There are the moments where film shifts from subtle to extraordinary. A feel-good factor that will leave audiences feeling warm in its glow – and it's from a true story!”

    “A great opening film - with the special introduction by Scott Murray who was the co-writer! Mark Rylance gave an understated yet powerful performance as Maurice Flitcroft. And the supporting cast were terrific in telling this unbelievable story. A well-told fantastic yarn!”

    “A very good start to the season and so nice to be back in the hall on a Tuesday evening. What a story and so good to have the co-author’s take on it. Strong performance from Mark Rylance and some other good ones too. Thanks”.

    “A great film. Let’s have more like that”.

    “This was all so unexpected and wonderful. Loved the talk with the writer too”.

    “Brilliant season opener”.

    “A delightful, heart-warming story of self-belief and perseverance. All the characters were well acted and the humour was a joy. Great start to the season”.

    “Fantastic film. Such a treat to hear Scott Murray talking about the book and the film”.

    “A Charming film to open the season”.

    “Thoroughly enjoyed the first film of the season”.

    “Is Rylance now ‘specialising’ in false denture parts. Great choice for an opener”.

    “Great entertainment! A lesson in perseverance. Brilliant opening film”.

    “A good laugh…. off to practice my golf”.

    “Brilliant and enjoyed the interview before the film too”.

    “Radiant innocence and ambition confront social class! What a performance from Rylance. Full of feeling. A good start to the season”.

    “Outstanding start to the season”. “Funny, poignant, brilliant film”.

    “Excellent feelgood season opener; enjoyed the performances of Mark Rylance and Sally Hawkins”.

    “Great entertainment and all the more amusing because it was true”.

    “Lovely film – very British humour”.

    “I’m a new member – didn’t know what to expect – it was a brilliant film – thank you”.

    “Brilliant choice. Very funny. Well done for finding it”.

    “Sweet but lacked depth”.

    “Audio a bit loud. Lovely gentle British humour”.

    “Enjoyed the pre film interview”. “Unusual pathos. Rylance excellent as always”.


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