If you have a taste for offbeat British films (like The Duke) you’ll want to take note of The Phantom of the Open. The story is slim but sweet, and its leading actors capture the quirky sensibility of its unlikely protagonists. When those characters are played by actors as gifted (and likable) as Mark Rylance and Sally Hawkins, you know you’re in good hands.
The screenplay, by actor-writer Simon Farnaby (whose credits include Paddington and its sequel), is uniquely British, as is the real-life story that inspired it. Rylance plays a kind-hearted working-class bloke who, when his factory job is threatened, decides to enter the British Open golf tournament in 1976, undeterred by the fact that he has never played the game before. Ever. He is blessed with an innate—and some would way, completely misplaced—sense of optimism. That explains how he has made it this far in life, aided and abetted by a loving and supportive wife. His twin sons follow his aim-for-the-stars credo and become championship disco dancers, while their straitlaced older brother cringes on the sidelines.
As the slow-boiling authority figure who tries to quash Rylance’s unrealistic golfing ambitions Rhys Ifans is amusing, making the most of a two-dimensional figure.
But Hawkins and Rylance are past masters at imbuing their fanciful characters with humanity that keeps this film grounded even when it threatens to become absurd. Maintaining a credible through-line, even while incorporating some stylish dream sequences, is the responsibility of director Craig Roberts, who made a splash over a decade ago as the star of the sleeper Submarine. I must confess that I haven’t seen his first two features as director, but now I am intrigued and intend to catch up.
The Phantom of the Open is a love letter to dreamers everywhere, and as such it defies scrutiny. Gifted actors have a way of blurring one’s critical vision.
The film opened in theaters in New York and Los Angeles June 3, and will be followed by bookings in cities nationwide.