At what point does self-awareness turn inside out, to become the very thing it’s observing? “The Phantom of the Open” tries so hard to be a winking commentary on British heartwarmers about lovable outsiders. And its efforts are, as often as not, entertaining. But after a while, it becomes clear that what it wants more than anything is to be embraced as a crowd-pleasing comedy itself.
After noting that his film is based on a true story, director Craig Roberts begins at the end, with an aged Maurice Flitcroft (Mark Rylance) reminiscing about his rather extraordinary golfing career. Why was it so extraordinary? Because, we learn in flashback, it was the epitome of ordinary.
Back in 1976, Flitcroft is just an unassuming shipyard worker, raising three unassuming boys with his unassuming wife Jean (Sally Hawkins). His teen twins (Jonah and Christian Lees) want to be disco dancers, and his older son Michael (Jake Davies) is a manager at the yard. That means it’s up to Michael to deliver some bad news: There are layoffs coming, and Dad may be among those let go.
Fortunately, Maurice happens to catch a golf tournament on TV soon after, which leads him to a life-changing epiphany; he’ll take advantage of this lousy luck by turning it into a win. Well, maybe not a win, but certainly a try. Despite knowing literally nothing about the sport, he’s going to enter the prestigious British Open Golf Championship.
As anyone who has ever seen a British comedy about an unassuming underdog who decides to become an athlete/singer/stripper/thief already knows, hijinks of the heavily scored and montaged variety ensue. Elites in his industry are appalled, exploited coworkers are inspired, and family is divided before uniting again.
Roberts — who has made two other films but is probably best known for his extensive acting career (“Submarine,” “Red Oaks”) — and writer Simon Farnaby (“Paddington 2”) share a playful sensibility that saves “Phantom” from sinking into a mawkish mire. But only just.
No one works harder than cinematographer Kit Fraser (who also shot Roberts’ last film, “Eternal Beauty”) and editor Jonathan Amos, who keep the mischievous visuals interesting enough to distract us from the predictability of the plot. Composer Isobel Waller-Bridge (“Emma.”) leans into the sentimentality but with a light and often lovely touch.
Hawkins brings soulful gravitas to her generic supporting role, and the Lees add amusement as Maurice’s impish sons. But Rhys Ifans is wasted as a stuffed-shirt administrator, and none of Maurice’s eccentric friends stands out. As for Rylance, he goes all-in on a high-quirk performance based, to a notable degree, on his character’s false teeth and wide-eyed wisdom. It’s certainly a surprise when we learn that Maurice is only 46, as Rylance plays him as an oft-oblivious codger near-ready for retirement.
“Phantom” does suffer by comparison to a strikingly similar film that’s also out now: “The Duke,” which stars Jim Broadbent as the unlikely folk hero, and Helen Mirren as his loyal wife. The equally cheeky “The Duke” avoids many of the sand traps into which “Phantom” ultimately falls. But if we learn anything from Maurice, it’s that everyone deserves points for effort. And a few good swings are worth cheering, even if you do, ultimately, settle into the middle of the pack.
“The Phantom of the Open” opens in LA and NYC June 3.