Review: Rylance brings its quirky sparkle to the golf tale

As one of our most talented living actors on screen or on stage, Mark Rylance certainly knows how to speak beautifully. But sometimes it seems like the essence of his playing emerges in those empty seconds between the words.

He hems, he nods, he stops, he hesitates. It’s never afraid to leave a few beats of dead space, and it keeps us off guard – often making us forget we’re hearing lines from a script.

Rylance is also one of those rare actors who can power an entire movie, and ‘The Phantom of the Open’ definitely leans on the strength of his signature quirky energy as it tells the true story of Maurice Flitcroft, a dockyard crane operator from northern England who stunned the golfing world in 1976 by playing the British Open under false pretences – he had never played a round of golf – and performing the worst round qualifier in Open history. Then he walked in a bunch of times, under false names and in disguise, earning folk hero status along the way.

But Flitcroft wasn’t kidding. He truly believed he had a chance and he had the unwavering support of his wife, Jean, who urged him to pursue his dreams. So did two of his sons, whom he encouraged to do the same – they were world disco dancing champions (yes, we said disco dancing champions.)

So you’ve got a great real-life story and one of the best actors in the world to tell it, with the wonderful Sally Hawkins as Jean bringing shade and emotion to what might have been being a stereotypical part (sometimes with gooey dialogue). You also have a fun soundtrack full of vintage pop references and original music by Isobel Waller-Bridge.

Yet with all that awaits, director Craig Roberts and writer Simon Farnaby never quite show us why Flitcroft did what he did. What was the engine behind his, uh, engines? He was clearly serious, but why play golf, something he hadn’t tried in half a century on earth? The film is so entertaining that it pretty much gets away with not exploring the issue.

In an opening sequence recapping Flitcroft’s life up to 1975, we learn that a job in a shipyard was the only option for a working-class young man in Barrow-in-Furness, on the northwestern tip. from England. But when, at 46, social conditions jeopardize his career, his wife urges him to find a new dream. While watching TV one day, he comes across a golf tournament. Something clicks in his brain. The moment is captured in a dream sequence where Flitcroft mounts and is catapulted off an actual tee – as if he were a golf ball.

Soon, Jean is helping her fill out the registration forms for the Open. Adorably, neither of them knows what “disability” means, so they decide to divulge his fake teeth and “a touch of arthritis.” When his candidacy arrives, the tournament’s haughty authorities assume that no one would be stupid enough to call him a golf pro if he isn’t.

So the ruse begins. It doesn’t go well, but at the end of a fun day, a TV presenter intones, “The day belongs to Maurice.” For most people, it’s a funny joke. Flitcroft himself is insulted by this assumption. He will return, he promises: “Practice is the way to perfection.”

A journalist clings to the story and suddenly Maurice is the “Phantom of the Open”. A montage of his media notoriety is accompanied by a hugely entertaining dance sequence to the beat of Abba’s “Money, Money, Money”. But golf authority Keith Mackenzie – a terribly uptight Rhys Ifans – is furious. He forbids Flitcroft from joining golf clubs. Also, eldest son Mike, who is upwardly mobile at the shipyard, is deeply ashamed.

But Jean always remains true. “How do you think Jack Nicholson would have done if he had started golf at 50? she asks with support. Maurice kindly corrects her: “Jack Nicklaus”.

It’s Jean who suggests that perhaps Maurice can come back to the Open by entering like someone else. A dashing Frenchman, perhaps? They try on a fake mustache. “Very classy,” she says. “Hello,” he replies. The Hawkins-Rylance chemistry is a treat.

This chemistry is especially powerful at the crowd-pleasing end, on a side trip to Michigan, of all places. The real Maurice’s final sequence is utterly fascinating and hints that his story might not have been as sweet as the one we just saw. But it’s hard to deny that this 18 holes was damn enjoyable.

“The Phantom of the Open”, a Sony Pictures Classics release, was rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America “for strong language and smoking”. Duration: 106 minutes. Two and a half out of four stars. MPAA Definition of PG-13: Parents Strongly Cautioned. Some content may be inappropriate for children under 13.

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Follow National AP writer Jocelyn Noveck on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/JocelynNoveckAP

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