The British film industry produces at least one movie a year that contends with their unyielding class system. Some of the more light-hearted ones do well in the United States even though Americans refuse to believe the same system exists here. It’s been a long time since an American movie like Mike Nichols’ Working Girl (1988) hit a similar nerve. Instead, films like The Full Monty (1997), Billy Elliott (2000) and On a Clear Day (2006) appeal to Americans when the storylines are modeled after fairy tales. An individual, or on occasion, a group’s wish is, after overcoming several obstacles, inevitably fulfilled.
Ken Loach’s recent film Sorry We Missed You (2019) is an example of a more nihilistic approach to the same subject. The main character can’t take a day off from his job because he needs the money to keep his family afloat. It’s an excruciating hour and a half as we watch things go from bad to the worst possible outcome. The Full Monty, featuring a male strip act, made $45 million in the States. Sorry We Missed You gained little traction in North America and earned less than $30k.
Craig Roberts’ golf biopic Phantom of the Open is another fairy tale more aligned with Britcom movies than Loach’s oeuvre. But Roberts doesn’t let the class conflicts recede into the background or disappear from the plot during the comic asides and fantasy sequences. When Maurice Flitcroft (Mark Rylance) imagines the moon as a golf ball, he’s looking for a new way to make a living. His job as a crane operator is threatened by a round of impending layoffs.
This particular protagonist’s need for money is never out of the picture. The reality of having to pay bills sometimes tempers the overly emphatic, sentimental piano soundtrack. At other times, Rylance’s close-ups get hijacked by the fey, tinkling high notes. But the director also adds in several disco, pop, and soul hits from the late 1960s and 1970s when the film takes place. Songs like The Foundations’ “Build Me Up Buttercup” do a lot of work to counter the maudlin energy of dewy-eyed actors.
Watching the telly one evening, Maurice is mesmerized by the British Open Golf Championship. He and his wife Jean (Sally Hawkins) subsequently have a tête-à-tête over a cup of tea. Jean’s a mischievous soul in her own right. She encourages her husband to pursue his sudden, burgeoning passion for golf. With scarcely more than a couple of practice days, he decides to fill out an application to enter the most prestigious tournament in the United Kingdom. The £7,500 prize money isn’t an insignificant factor that motivates Maurice to enter the fray.
When he shows up for the qualifying round, Phantom of the Open turns into a screwball comedy. Maurice is, to put it mildly, not good at golf. His shots hook left and right into water hazards and sand traps. And, crucially, he cannot sink a putt. Sports reporters on hand for the event take note of him. They dubbed him, “The World’s Worst Golfer.” Afterwards, Maurice heads home with mixed feelings. Rylance slows the performance down to make sure the audience registers the character’s contradictory set of emotions. Maurice is pleased to have participated, to have tried something new. Yet he’s also ashamed that his ineptitude garnered so much attention.
Afterwards, Maurice turns his viral escapade into fifteen minutes of fame. Roberts mines the comedy out of his effort to stay in the spotlight but the director also points out the hierarchy and snobbery of, for one example, elitist country clubs. When he decides to really start practicing, Maurice shows up at one of these clubs. The gatekeeper won’t let him join because he isn’t wearing an appropriate pair of £15 shoes. Rylance silently expresses his despair at the cost but finds a way to rebound. Phantom of the Open is a record of Maurice’s resilience — and by extension the proletariat’s — as much as it is about a transgressive day in the history of professional golf.
There are, however, two different Loachian antagonists. One is the company Maurice worked at for most of his adult life, where his stepson Michael (Jake Davies) has risen above him and into a managerial position there. This subplot includes a melodramatic turn when Michael has to choose between the future of his career and defending his stepfather’s impractical new hobby. As expected, it resolves neatly and tearfully, an altogether unnecessary tangent.
The British Open directors also oppose the very idea of someone from Maurice’s class having the chutzpah to even dream of participating in their tournament. They’re furious that his terrible round of golf made the news, and, in their eyes, demeaned the game itself. Roberts plays one television clip of Margaret Thatcher, who was in power at the time. Without a hint of irony, she promotes the idea that an individual’s will power is the only key that citizens need to advance in society. Phantom of the Open demonstrates that the British upper classes locked their doors and threw away those keys. With his set of false teeth and his second-hand argyle vests, Maurice Flitcroft’s misadventures suggest that crashing the British Open was, appropriate to the time, a punk rock thing to do.
Phantom of the Open is now playing at AMC’s Kabuki 8 and Metreon 16 in San Francisco..