If you consider golf an elitist sport, you can imagine how it seemed in the mid-19th century. It appears the game’s been at arm’s length from the working class since then, at least according to Tommy’s Honour, the latest entry in the it-really-happened genre. It’s a disorganized but lovely Scottish film which tells of the nascent days of golf’s popularity, and a young player ready to buck the status system.
To be clear, Tommy’s Honour is a golf movie the way that The Endless Summer (the 1966 surfing documentary, which is on Netflix actually) is about oceanography. Golf is the film’s emotional catalyst, the driver of a typical period piece worthy of its costumes and setting, with dour-looking men, rigid women, a tear-jerking romance and a level of melodrama that does not feel out of place. The Tommy of the title is true-life Tommy Morris (Jack Lowden of ’71 and, soon, of Dunkirk), son of the famed St. Andrews groundskeeper of the same name (Peter Mullan), and a fellow whose destiny is to caddy in Scotland for proper “gentlemen.” But there’s something getting in the way of those low-level expectations: Tommy is a good golfer. Like winning-an-open-tournament-at-age-17 good.
This sets up some familiar biopic themes of familial tension, newfound fame, class conflict—the film, directed by Jason Connery (actor and son of Sean), hits all the expected notes, building an underdog story amidst the brisk chill of what would become one of the world’s most beloved—and treacherous—golf courses. Back in those early days, the rich used fine golfers like racehorses, betting big money on their favorites and reaping the rewards. As Tommy Jr. continues his dominance over other Scottish and English players, he comes to understand his own leverage, and begins what must have been a first or near-first: an athlete demanding a greater piece of the pie. Of course, the very idea disgusts a highly respected club leader, played by Sam Neill with a raised eyebrow and a stiff upper lip, who is quick to express that no amount of money can elevate a man’s status. Boy, it’s easy to know who we’re rooting for here.
Even casual fans of the game will appreciate seeing how it came to be. We witness the first player tour, the first use of spectator ropes (to prevent fistfights from breaking out on the green, don’t you know), and even learn of a women’s open tournament (about which, one guy sincerely asks, “Doesn’t their bosom get in the way?”). Of course, with Tommy being a brazen, talented guy who happens to look like Jack Lowden, there’s a Love Story for the Ages, which hits every available emotion and scenario in about an hour of screen time. Kudos to Connery for the effort. And extra points to the director for shooting even the most dramatic golf scenes with almost no close-ups and zero use of slow motion. History is made in the most matter-of-fact way: What you see is what you get.
Most of the Tommy’s Honour’s storytelling works functionally, despite the first half of the film’s odd editing approach, with a series of slightly disconnected scenes that lack a firm narrative through-line. In this way, the film does put a welcome emphasis on character development, but the approach also makes Tommy’s Honour feel longer than it needs to be. There’s a delicate balance in there somewhere, but the film just can’t nail it. That, and some by-the-numbers dialogue (by untested writers Pamela Marin and Kevin Cook) are an occasional liability, but all is easily ignored by a solid cast—Peter Mullan makes even the most stilted lines sound heartfelt—and a tip of the tam o’ shanter to a history that’s probably not known even by today’s most fervent country club golfers.
Director: Jason Connery
Writers: Pamela Marin, Kevin Cook
Starring: Peter Mullan, Jack Lowden, Sam Neill, Ophelia Lovibond
Release Date: April 14, 2017