Phantom of the Open review: Mark Rylance scores hole-in-one with hilarious underdog tale
This Mark Rylance comedy-drama is perhaps the most twee film you’ll see this decade, but it’s genuinely heart-warming too, with endless hits of proper comedy.
It’s not the year’s first joyous tale of a working class British underdog. The Duke, starring Jim Broadbent as an elderly campaigner against BBC television licensing, was in a similar vein, and ended up feeling more contemporary than it could have ever hoped, released in the looming shadow of BBC licence fee cuts.
The Phantom is a lighter ride than The Duke, making no attempt to platform a political agenda. At the heart of the plot is real-life 1970s golfing amateur Maurice Flitcroft, who fiddled the papers to the Open Championship to gain entry as a novice. The only problem? He’d never played a round of golf before.
Mark Rylance plays Flitcroft. He’s an actor who squirms from being typecast, but he has an affinity for playing men on the fringes of society. He was last seen as enigmatic tech weirdo Sir Peter Isherwell in controversial climate change parody Don’t Look Up.
In my mind, filming The Phantom didn’t take much longer than the running time of the film, because Rylance eases into every scene like he’s just sauntered over from the last. Rylance’s Maurice Flitcroft is deeply respectful to the actual man, we learn in the closing credits, when black and white footage of the real Flitcroft appears briefly.
It’s stuffed with physical comedy which gets at the complexities of Flitcroft. Rylance hilariously replicates the way he contorted his face like a puppet to feign innocence when he broke into golf clubs to practice, and when Flitcroft squints as he takes an unwieldy swing at a golf ball, we go into slo-mo and the lens plays with perspective to keep us guessing whether the novice has hit a great shot or whether it’s dribbled a few feet in front of him.
Polished dreamlike sequences take Flitcroft into imagined realities, a visual break from the entrapments of his financial position and the dreary industrial environment he works in.
There’s another great physical comedic turn by Rhys Ifans, who squeezes the right amount of pantomime villain out of his formidable Keith Mackenzie character, head honcho at the golf club.
Rylance and Ifans together are something like Dick Dastardly and Scooby Doo – a silly duo doing silly things, made for the elderly afternoon cinema posse who pay £3 to see films like this with a cup of tea included. Some of them will remember the actual Flitcroft.
It all points to gentle messages about social mobility, family and class snobbery. But mostly, I hope YouTube videos of the real man will see their viewing figures soar majestically, like the golf ball of Flitcroft’s dreams.
The Phantom of the Open is playing at selected cinemas now