Sony Classics could hardly have picked a better time for “The Phantom of the Open” to arrive here. The US Open is underway at the Country Club, and “Phantom” is a based-on-fact movie about the British Open. So you have real golf, in Brookline, and you have unreal golf, on the screen. It’s unreal twice over, being a movie rather than real life; and in the ridiculousness of the story that the movie tells.
Do you remember Eddie the Eagle, the famously inept English ski jumper who finished last at the 1988 Winter Olympics? Maurice Flitcroft — what a name — makes Eddie look like a cross between Roger Federer and Michael Jordan. In the 1976 British Open, Flitcroft shot a 121, 49 over par, the worst single-round score in the tournament’s history. “Phantom” is the story of how he got into the Open and what he did after.
The movie is alternately preposterous and predictable, forced in humor and saccharine in emotion, and it’s not exactly steady in striking a balance between the two. “Phantom” does offer two compensations, and they are considerable. Mark Rylance plays Maurice, and Sally Hawkins (”The Shape of Water”) plays his wife. Rylance’s quiet incandescence is, as always, a marvel; and even if Hawkins’s wondrousness is pretty much wasted — she’s reduced to saying things like “Remember, whatever happens, no one can say you didn’t try” — their company is always welcome.
The most interesting thing about Maurice’s story is its class aspect. He was a crane operator in a shipyard in the north of England. He’d never even seen golf played until the 1975 British Open, which he catches a glimpse of on television. Gobsmacked does not begin to describe his response. It’s the best moment in the movie, and Rylance’s expression is more eloquent than a soliloquy. Maurice immediately resolves to play in next year’s tournament. Not only has he never picked up a golf club, he’s 45. How Maurice gets himself officially entered … well, let’s just say it’s a good thing these events actually happened. Otherwise, you’d never believe them.
In a sport of toffs, here was a working-class newcomer. “Phantom” flirts with developing that disparity. The plot touches on de-industrialization and shipyard layoffs — or “redundancies,” that awful term the British use — and there’s even a brief televised glimpse of Margaret Thatcher. Maurice’s stepson being a rising executive at the shipyard adds to the awkwardness. Mostly, though, class is played for obvious laughs. Rhys Ifans, as a pompous golf association official, epitomizes this approach. He plays long-suffering Commissioner Dreyfus to Maurice’s lovably bumbling Inspector Clouseau.
“I am a whisker away,” Maurice declares after his first practice session. A walrus mustache and full beard would be more like it. After shooting that 121 in the opening round, he announces that “I don’t think the score is a reflection of my play.” He’s right, though not necessarily in the way he intends.
Is Maurice delusional, in a sweet enough way, or is something more going on? Subsequent events in the movie make that a relevant question. Maurice is a fascinating character study waiting to happen. The happening doesn’t take place here. In that sense, “Phantom” really is about a phantom. It’s also a golf movie only in the strictest sense of the term: that is, a movie with some golf in it. Otherwise, it’s an anti-golf movie. You don’t have to love the sport, or even like it, to see that Maurice isn’t democratizing it. His actions are making a mockery of it. He doesn’t see it that way, nor does the movie. But the joke isn’t on him. It’s on golf.
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPEN
Directed by Craig Roberts. Written by Simon Farnaby; based on the book by Farnaby and Scott Murray. Starring Mark Rylance, Sally Hawkins, Rhys Ifans. At Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, West Newton. 106 minutes. PG-13 (some strong language, smoking).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.