Anyone who watched Sergio García's thrilling sudden death victory in last weekend's Masters knows that golf can be dramatic. That tradition goes back 150 years to the time of Old Tom Morris, who won the Open Championship (what Americans call the British Open) in 1861, 1862, 1864 and 1867, before passing the mantle to his son, Young Tom or Tommy Morris, also a four-time winner.
The Morrises and their flinty, but ultimately tender relationship are the subject of the handsomely produced drama "Tommy's Honour," directed by Jason Connery and based on a book by Kevin Cook, who also wrote the screenplay with his wife, Pamela Marin.
Though ostensibly set on various links throughout Britain, this faithful and often moving film addresses much more than golf heroics, commenting on issues of tradition, class and family, especially the bonds between father and son.
Golf has changed a lot since the Morrises first teed their shots from small, handcrafted hills of dirt, and they contributed mightily to that modernization. Old Tom, the longtime greenskeeper at Scotland's Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, helped organize the first Open, hand-crafted balls and clubs in his shop and designed dozens of courses, rapidly evolving a sport that had already been played for four centuries. Young Tommy was a true innovator on the links, creating shots and strategies that would affect the game for decades.
In the film, Tommy is played with antsy rebellion by Jack Lowden, who bears a strong resemblance to Dennis Christopher, star of the 1979 cycling film "Breaking Away," another sports drama rooted in class with a strong father-son dynamic. Learning the game from Old Tom, played by Peter Mullan, Tommy surpasses his father by the time he is a teen.
Nothing but pride, and perhaps a lament of aging, passes over Old Tom's face as he watches his son's progress. The conflict between the two men largely emerges from Tommy's rejection of his father's working-class model of maintaining the course and attending to the club members' needs with lessons and equipment. In other words, knowing his place.
In the 19th century, amateurism was idealized, with professional athletes viewed as something like prized thoroughbreds, though with less social standing. Club members, real "gentlemen," staked professional golfers' matches, gambling large sums of money and then paying the golfers a small cut of the winnings. Tommy Morris challenged the status quo, successfully demanding a larger share.
Tommy chafes at the idea of the already rich men profiting from his talent. A bit of a dandy, he sees how the upper class lives and wants a piece of the action, standing up to the club's pompous chief, Alexander Boothby (cheekily played by Sam Neill), while earning the disapproval of Old Tom.
The elder Morris initially sees little need for change in a society that allows him to provide for his family, yet remain in debt. But through his love for Tommy, he bestows a begrudging acceptance. The veteran Mullan, best known for his work with Ken Loach and Danny Boyle, can do more with a narrowing of the eyes than most actors can with a soliloquy, and his ruddy features and stoic demeanor anchor the film, grounding it in social realism whenever it tends toward romanticism and sentimentality.
The younger Morris also bucks convention when he falls for Meg Drinnen ("Guardians of the Galaxy's" Ophelia Lovibond), a maid 10 years his senior. The film pins much of its story on their romance, a match met with judgment from the community and strong displeasure from Tommy's mother, Nancy (Therese Bradley). Fortunately, there is plenty of chemistry between Lowden and the winsome Lovibond, and their scenes of courtship both lighten the tone and earn our emotional investment.
Connery and his crew, including director of photography Gary Shaw, production designer James Lapsley and costume designer Rhonda Russell, richly evoke the harsh beauty of Scotland, while warmly re-creating the style and manners of the period. There's a certain "Chariots of Fire"-like reverence for all things golf and Scottish, but the woolly courses, a far cry from the manicured fairways of today, and comparatively crude implements used by the players, provide an earthy balance.
However, "Tommy's Honour's" greatest strength turns out to be its primary weakness, as well. It's surprisingly affecting, but there's a tendency to telegraph these pivotal emotional moments that in a way lessens their effect. It's a tribute to the film's overall craft, and especially its cast, that it's as much a winner as it is.
Rating: PG, for thematic elements, some suggestive material, language and smoking
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Playing: In limited release