Tuesday, April 25, 2017

“Tommy’s Honour” – indie film brings golf legends to life ★★★★☆

Great sports films tend to be less about the sport being portrayed than about the lives of the people involved as shaped by the sport they play—about the pursuit of excellence and the inevitable sacrifices that are made in the name of that pursuit. With its emphasis on the lives of an iconic father-son duo from the early days of golf, the new film Tommy’s Honour, released April 14th, may not achieve the status of great sports film, but is certainly to be considered among the best golf films to ever hit the big screen.

Jack Lowden, as Young Tom Morris, and Peter Mullan as his father, Old Tom (background) bring the story of two of the game’s early greats to vivid life in the new film Tommy’s Honour.

Making a successful sports film, let alone one about golf, is hard. If the story is too much about the sport itself, the filmmakers run the risk of viewers staying away unless they are fans; and if too little attention is paid to the game or sport in the film, fans will nitpick technical issues.

When the film is about golf, those problems multiply. Golf is a niche sport, considered by non-golfers to be arcane, snobbish, and too difficult to play. Most viewers can identify better with movies about football, or baseball, or even basketball.

A film about golf has to have a strong hook to bring non-golfers into the theater, while at the same time staying true to the game in order to please golf fans. When the film is a period piece, and you add to the mix the complications of an historic setting, heavy Scots accents, tweedy vintage costuming, and 19th-century class conflict, the burden is multiplied. Luckily for all golf/movie fans, the folks that brought us Tommy’s Honour were up to the task.

Golfers with a sense of history and some knowledge of the early days of the game will already be familiar with the story of Old Tom Morris and his son, Young Tom (as he was known.) Old Tom was a club maker, caddie, course designer, and the greenskeeper at St Andrews Golf Links for over two decades. He founded the Open Championship in 1860, and won it four times – in 1861, 1862, 1864, and 1867.

Young Tom was the oldest of four children in the Morris family and a champion golfer in his own right who surpassed even his father in a tragically short career. Born in 1851, Young Tom won the first of four Open Championship titles in 1868, at the age of 17. He is still the youngest man to have ever won the Open Championship, and the only man to have won it three times in a row, from 1868 to 1870, with a fourth victory in 1872. The 1872 win was his last, as he died at age 24—some say of a broken heart after the death in childbirth of his beloved wife, Meg, and their infant child.

But Tommy’s Honour isn’t just about golf. The heart of the story is about family, with all the complications that arise out of family relationships, and class struggle. Scottish society was very stratified at the time, and men like the Morrises, though skilled craftsmen and sportsmen, were looked down upon by the “gentlemen” who were members of the golf clubs where they worked. They were just menial workers who were expected to know, and keep to, their “proper place”–which was low on the social ladder (with no prospect of climbing higher.)

Champion golfers like the Morrises played matches against other club champions, matches that were arranged by the toffs who belonged to the golf clubs. The gents bet heavily on the outcomes of these matches while the players earned a relative pittance for their efforts. A comparison to horse racing comes to mind, with the club members in the role of the owners and bettors, and the players in the role of the horses—with nearly as little control over their fates.

Old Tom accepted his station, while Young Tom, as portrayed in the film, was champing at the bit to rise higher and do better than his father—a desire which was a point of conflict between the two. Young Tom pressed for a larger share of the winnings and more control over the matches, earning his father’s ire, and disdain (followed eventually by a grudging respect) from the upper-class golf club members.

The story in Tommy’s Honour is about love, and respect, and pride, and conflict, all set against the backdrop of the time and place when the game of golf was starting to grow beyond its Scottish roots, when the early champions were starting to chip away, bit by bit, at the hierarchical structure of the game.

There was a long road ahead of them yet, but this was the period when the men who played the game better than their masters started to earn the respect that was their due, and Young Tom Morris was a seminal figure in that first groundswell of change.

From a purely film-making point of view, Tommy’s Honour is a handsome film, beautifully shot in the Scottish countryside and in “the auld grey toon”, as St Andrews is affectionately known. The costuming, cinematography and other production qualities are equal to the best that film or television can offer (comparisons to Downton Abbey have been made), and the acting, especially the portrayals of Old Tom by veteran Scottish actor Peter Mullan, and relative newcomer Jack Lowden as Young Tom, are vivid and heartfelt. Ophelia Lovibond, who played Young Tom’s wife, Meg, is known to American television audiences from appearances in the TV show Elementary.

As far as the authenticity of the golf scenes go, with no moving pictures of golf from that period in existence there is no basis of comparison for the truthfulness of the actors’ portrayal of the players’ swings. The hickory-shafted clubs and primitive balls (not to mention ties and heavy tweed jackets the players wore) dictated a swing that differed greatly from what we are used to seeing today. More qualified viewers than myself have cast a critical eye on the golf scenes, but I found them to be quite satisfactory—with one rather glaring exception.

There is a scene early in the film in which Young Tom is showing his friends Davie Strath and James Hunter a new shot that he has invented. Using a rut iron—sort of a 19th century sand wedge, but without the angled sole that produces bounce—Young Tom pops a hard-spinning chip shot onto the putting surface, past the flag, whereupon the ball spins back just like a modern golf ball, coming to a stop below the hole.

Other reviewers have pooh-poohed this scene based on the fact that the combination of 19th century club and ball could not possibly have produced that kind of spin. I tend to agree, but I also feel that another, and maybe more important, limiting factor comes into play—the surface of the putting green.

Most modern courses have fairways that are smoother than the putting greens were in those days. Given the furry texture of the greens at the time, even with appreciable amounts of backspin the feathery or guttie balls of the time would not have found the purchase necessary to gain traction and back up as Young Tom’s trick shot was shown to do. It was a somewhat jarring anachronism, but as it came early in the film it didn’t have a significant impact.

Tommy’s Honour is destined to be considered one of the best golf films ever made. As of this writing it has already ended its short run in the local indie film/art house theater in San Jose where I saw it, but still had a couple of days left to run in another art house in Monterey. Though it is doubtful that it will see much screen time in theaters, movie fans with an interest in period pieces, British cinema, and/or golf should look for it before long on streaming services and hopefully on DVD.