The story of Maurice Flitcroft is what one would label as “stranger than fiction.”
A shipyard crane-operator from Barrow-in-Furness, a port town in Northern England, Flitcroft gained notoriety when he entered the 1976 British Open after taking up golf only a couple years prior. He would go on to shoot a score of 121, the worst recorded score in the history of the Open. After the tournament, his (very) amateur status was discovered and he was banned from re-entering the Open. He would attempt to play in competitions by wearing disguises and using pseudonyms in the years following.
It isn’t hard to see why director Craig Roberts wanted to adapt Flitcroft’s story to the big screen. An underdog tale in the most ludicrous fashion, you wouldn’t be off base to assume that The Phantom of the Open would be a highly comedic, campy biopic of an eccentric man. You would, however, be very wrong.
The film of course has many comedic moments, but The Phantom of the Opera leans more towards earnest drama. Rather than focus on the hijinx and deception, Roberts turns his attention to the motivations and heart of Flitcroft.
Roberts is successful in this endeavour in large part because of Mark Rylance’s performance as Flitcroft. Rylance plays the character very straight and very sincerely. Rather than amplify his character’s quirkiness, Rylance is, again, the everyman: a middle-aged father and husband who works at the docks and goes to the pub. In doing so, the extraordinary nature of the circumstances feel surprisingly matter-of-fact.
The heart of the film, however, is Flitcroft’s relationship with his wife, Jean. Portrayed by Sally Hawkins, Jean is given a great amount of warmth and tenderness, and her reliably wonderful performance elevates the character beyond the typical doting wife and mother, culminating in a beautiful emotional climax that rounds out the film.
The downside to taking such a subdued approach to Flitcroft’s story, however, is that it mutes the “stranger than fiction” factor. Roberts employs some magical realism in a few scenes, and the dry British humour is fully on display, but he stops short of fully embracing the unique nature of Flitcroft’s exploits.
Perhaps rather fittingly given the sport, the film is a polite adaptation of a notorious hoaxer. A feel good underdog story combined w
ith a Disney-like family drama that is effective for what it is, but The Phantom of the Open falls a few strokes short of its source’s potential.
The Phantom of the Open opens June 17 in Toronto (Varsity), Vancouver, Montreal and Ottawa.