Endearing failure is a peculiarly British genre. Until now the classic endearing failure movie has been the feel-good extravaganza about Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards, the hopeless ski-jumper who cheekily competed for Britain in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. He flopped badly, but his antics made him a minor celebrity, going on to appear in adverts and compete in Let’s Dance for Sport Relief. Taron Egerton played him brilliantly as a dorky lump in an anorak, and Eddie the Eagle became the highest grossing British film of 2016. A success, after all.
The Phantom of the Open aims to emulate this triumph. It’s the more-or-less true story of Maurice Flitcroft, a crane operator for Vickers-Armstrongs shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness who took up golf in his mid-forties after seeing it played on television. Flitcroft managed to enter the qualifying round for the 1976 Open Championship played at Royal Birkdale Golf Club in Southport by claiming he was a professional, thus not needing to declare a handicap. Having only practised in parks and on beaches, indeed apparently never having played a full round before, he carded a 121, 49 over par, the worst score ever recorded in Open history. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club (R&A) was not amused. The rules were changed to prevent such an outrage happening again and Flitcroft was banned from all R&A courses. Undeterred, he tried to enter again and again under various preposterous pseudonyms, succeeding in 1984 in playing nine holes (in 63 strokes), by pretending to be a professional from Switzerland called Gerald Hoppy, before being removed. He became mildly famous, though he didn’t seem to see the joke in his media appearances, maintaining that he was a serious competitor, a better golfer than people realised, and that his score wasn’t a fair reflection of his play.
In 2010 the actor and writer Simon Farnaby and the Guardian journalist Scott Murray published a gamesome book about him, The Phantom of the Open: Maurice Flitcroft, the World’s Worst Golfer, and here it is now adapted for the big screen. Craig Roberts (Just Jim, Eternal Beauty) directs energetically – lots of pop songs, fantasy sequences, trick shots – but the film is made by its casting. Flitcroft is played by Mark Rylance, who brings more charm and humanity to the part than seems possible. He makes Flitcroft plausibly naive and genuinely endearing, a man who not only fails to grasp how others see him but who’s also hidden from himself, his gaze never fully focused, his speech hesitant. Perhaps the most salient detail about Rylance as a performer is not that he has cranky notions about the identity of Shakespeare, or that he is a committed believer in crop circles, but that he did not speak intelligibly until he was six, until then producing sounds that could only be understood by his siblings.
Not that he overplays the seriousness here. There’s plenty of gurning and lurching, a homage to Monty Python’s Gumbys (Michael Palin would have made a great Flitcroft too). As Flitcroft’s ever supportive wife, Jean, Sally Hawkins does her best “little me” act, given one big speech to confer blessings on her husband: “I know you’ve made sacrifices for us, Maurice, you don’t have to look after us any more. It’s your turn now.” And Rhys Ifans for once acts the pompous official rather than the bohemian rogue, cast as Keith Mackenzie of the R&A, blustering in a blazer.
There’s not quite enough here to sustain a feature, despite much being made of Flitcroft’s disco-dancing twin sons, a golf cart chase, and an apotheosis of our hero at a tournament in the US created in his honour to celebrate all hopelessly bad golfers. It seems assumed that failure doesn’t matter, being inherently delightful – a British speciality taste perhaps, or a modesty to be preferred to the Yankee boosterism of King Richard, say. Some commentators have found a sinister side to this. In her book Heroic Failure and the British, the American historian Stephanie Barczewski argued that this peculiar preference emerged from imperial dominance and “the need to provide alternative narratives that distracted from its real-life exploitative and violent aspects”. Fintan O’Toole has darkly interpreted Brexit as an aberrant form of heroic failure. Perhaps even our indulgence of Boris Johnson is best understood in this light too?
So, we might as well go meta. The Phantom of the Open, such a quintessential Britfilm, is itself not terribly good? Not really a winner? But that’s exactly what we like about it.
“The Phantom of the Open” is in cinemas now
This article appears in the 16 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s War Goes Global