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Review: Mark Rylance makes golf irresistible in inspiring true story ‘The Phantom of the Open’

Sally Hawkins, center, and Mark Rylance star in "The Phantom of the Open."
(Nick Wall / Sony Classics)
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Wherever your opinion of golf lands, on a spectrum ranging from glorious sport to “a good walk spoiled” (Mark Twain’s assessment) to snobby nonsense, there are smiles to be wrested from fans and disparagers alike as the British charmer “The Phantom of the Open” — about “world’s worst golfer” Maurice Flitcroft (Mark Rylance) — runs its sweetly eccentric course.

That’s because the real-life story that director Craig Roberts and screenwriter Simon Farnaby are telling has a big-tent appeal born of nose-thumbing craftiness and establishment-needling, but also the type of dogged self-belief that attracts us to sports. A good-natured crane operator for a shipyard in Cumbria who decided in his mid-40s to take up golf after watching it on television, Flitcroft finagled his way into the 1976 British Open even though the sum total of his experience with his mail-order clubs was some practice thwacks at the beach. And yet he was pretty sure he could win it.

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Flitcroft, who died in 2007, was certainly a pretender; he simply labeled himself a “professional” on the submission form, and nobody was suspicious enough to challenge it. But few would argue that his sincere gambit — once the organizers, the press and the public noticed — brought some refreshingly cheeky folk-hero appeal to a notoriously wealth-identified, exclusionary game. (Screenwriter Farnaby adapted his own co-authored book on Flitcroft.)

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You may see Flitcroft as a figure of ridicule or a hoax icon sticking it to gatekeepers or the ultimate aspiring amateur. The movie, however, shrewdly relishes all identities in its mix of the humor inherent in his prankish folly and the sentimentality of a pie-in-the-sky dream. In any case, Roberts’ easygoing, spry movie, arriving on the heels of “Eddie the Eagle” and “Dream Horse,” goes a good way toward keeping alive this engaging subgenre about improbable, beloved UK sports underdogs.

Mark Rylance, an Oscar winner for “Bridge of Spies,” plays a suit cutter from Savile Row facing down the Chicago mob in the crime drama “The Outfit.”

March 18, 2022

A lot of the film’s charisma has to do with the Oscar winner at its center in the argyle vest, modest cap, false teeth and singsong northwest English accent. Rylance’s singularly off-kilter, paradoxical style of immersive characterization — appearing innocent yet seasoned, naturalistic and exaggerated — befits a man whose motives always seem just beyond our comprehension but who compels as the star of his own kooky fable.

Because Flitcroft’s adoring, supportive wife, Jean (Sally Hawkins sturdily selling a thankless role), works in children’s theater, Roberts occasionally gilds the dream-big mood with flights of effects-driven fantasy — sending Flitcroft off into a painted night sky as in in a storybook production. But these touches, not to mention the many needle drops from the era’s perkiest pop and soul, seem hardly necessary when Rylance’s shuffling, quirky brand of distracted optimism is its own engine of folksy positivity. (The more disco-ey song cues, though, at least have a basis in the reality of Flitcroft’s follow-your-bliss family — his twin sons Gene and James, whom he often used as caddies, were disco dancing champions, and their portrayers, Christian and Jonah Lees, provide plenty of onscreen buoyancy whether helping their dad or strutting their stuff.)

On the antagonist front, Rhys Ifans sputters amusingly as the horrified tournament authority eager to oust the interloper, but turning Flitcroft’s class-conscious eldest son, Mike (Jake Davies), into the embarrassed naysayer brings out the script’s more emotionally manipulative tendencies. More authentic heartstring-tugging arrives when the final act takes the action to an American golf club, followed by a laugh-out-loud ending like the smoothly sunk putt on a winning drive.

There’s a long history of British comedies celebrating idiosyncratic homegrown pluck while simultaneously sending up the circumstances that necessitate it, from the days when Ealing Studios ruled to the era that gave us “The Full Monty” and “Calendar Girls” and on to this year’s models, marked by “The Duke” and “The Phantom of the Open.” The UK’s supply of these stories is apparently endless, and if the breezily pleasurable “Phantom” is any indication, the rigorous mining for these oddball delights remains justified.

'The Phantom of the Open'

Rating: PG-13, for some strong language and smoking

Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes

Playing: Starts June 3 at AMC Century City, AMC The Grove and Laemmle Royal

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