The Phantom of the Open

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You may not remember this but in 2016 Sally Hawkins appeared in Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla. Her performance in this film stands out in her filmography precisely because her performance didn’t stand out. She was just one of the ensemble cast and her scientist Dr. Vivienne Graham didn’t really register among the other players. This is a truly rare thing for Hawkins because in almost all of her other films, no matter how big her part, she is tends to steal the show.

She was the heart of last year’s Spencer, she eclipsed Cate Blanchett’s Oscar winning turn in Blue Jasmine and she was brilliant in An Education despite only being in one brief scene. She was also superb in Paddington and by any measure was the real hero of Paddington 2 (seriously, no one drives the plot in that movie as much as her). She even gave us a nice moment of heartache in Godzilla: King of Monsters where she reprised and built on the previously limited role from that first film.

It goes without saying that in films where she has been the headliner she has been excellent, as in Made in Dagenham, Eternal Beauty, The Shape of Water and Happy Go Lucky, but the point is she doesn’t need to be the protagonist to shine. It isn’t anything intangible like ‘the camera loving her, it is that she brings such life to every part she plays.

The same is totally true in The Phantom of the Open. In fact what is even more impressive here is that she is acting alongside Mark Rylance, someone who similarly has a habit of owning any film he is in. You can argue with me about who is the real star of this film if you like, but in almost anyone else’s hands the role of the wife and mother in this tale of real life golf celebrity Maurice Flitcroft could have played into gender tropes. With Hawkins though she is the soul and humanity of the story. It is the parallel part to the one Helen Mirren played in The Duke and where even she couldn’t avoid getting typically sidelined next to the male lead.

The Phantom of the Open and The Duke would actually make a great double bill. Both are about quirky Englishmen from somewhere in the North, trying to find very mildly anarchic ways of escaping their low income backgrounds. Both men have sons who either get involved with or complicate their father’s antics and both try to take something from arenas that are normally only accessible to those in a different social class; golf and art respectively. Like The Duke, this film isn’t as broadly funny as the trailer makes out either. Where it succeeds is as a charming social drama with familial relationships, and thanks entirely to Sally Hawkins, a moving depiction of a loyal marriage.

The Phantom of the Open also compares to Eddie the Eagle in that it is about someone who tries to compete in a sport they are deeply mediocre at. What it isn’t relatable to is films like Tin Cup or The Legend of Bagger Vance though as the actual golf feels a little incidental in a way that it shouldn’t be in a true sports movie.

More than anything then The Phantom of the Open is a character study. The narrative moves along briskly enough, cliches come and go, smiles are raised, heartstrings are poked (not tugged), flights of fantasy are indulged and everyone is gently entertained. Interestingly though Rylance’s Maurice is a bit of a caricature and the performance is a little one note. You know what I am going to say; it is Hawkins that saves it. It is only him playing off her that brings it to life. In fact, even among Hawkins’ back catalogue, rarely have I seen a film that depends so much on a supporting player,

He may be the club then but she is the one swinging it, and if I can stretch the metaphor a little further, the poster is spot on because without her holding the flag, the ball is never going down that hole.

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