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Posts Tagged ‘Craig Roberts’

One of the pleasing cinematic developments over the last few years has been the rise to greater prominence on movie screens of Mark Rylance. Now, to be fair, Rylance has been appearing in films since 1987, but prior to Bridge of Spies in 2015 he was much more acclaimed as a theatre actor than a film star (although his game of hide-the-sausage in 2001’s Intimacy did attract some attention). Being friends with Spielberg really can give you a career boost, obviously.

After various supporting turns in fairly big films, Rylance is now starring in a slightly smaller British film, Craig Roberts’ The Phantom of the Open (‘a stupid name’, according to the people doing the marketing at my local independent cinema). There are a few British directors specialising in this sort of thing so it didn’t really surprise me that Roberts’ name was vaguely familiar – but it turns out this is because I’ve been seeing him act in films for over ten years; this is his directorial debut (and very nicely done it is too).

The film opens in the mid-seventies. Rylance plays Maurice Flitcroft, a forty-something crane operator from Barrow-in-Furness in the north of England. After a life spent providing for his wife (Sally Hawkins) and children, the looming prospect of redundancy leads Maurice to contemplate pursuing a dream of his own – namely, entering and winning the British Golf Open. Some would consider this to be a little overambitious, given that Maurice has never completed a round of golf before in his life (he has only just taken up the sport). But his irrepressible positivity will brook no doubts.

So, sporting history is made when Maurice Flitcroft participates in the opening round of qualifying for the Open and indeed makes an unprecedented score: 121, to be exact (Seve Ballesteros, who was one of the leaders and briefly appears in the film as a character, could only manage a 69). Flitcroft is catapulted to celebrity with rather more speed and accuracy than one of his own drives usually displays, and the golfing authorities promptly have him banned from every course in the country for bringing the sport into disrepute. But it takes more than this to keep a man like Flitcroft down…

Once you start digging into the Flitcroft story, the sheer proliferation of ridiculous details do lead you to doubt whether any of these events actually took place – Flitcroft’s identical twin sons were semi-professional disco dancers, while later in his career he took to secretly entering tournaments under pseudonyms like Arnold Palmtree and Count Manfred von Hoffmanstel, occasionally making use of dark glasses and a false moustache. The film is at pains to stress that it is not inventing these things, but it certainly makes good use of them to produce a very funny comedy about snobbery, dreams, and slightly dysfunctional families.

If we’re going to be specific, it’s somewhere in the space between Eddie the Eagle (famous British sporting duffer loses everything but wins the hearts of the crowd) and The Duke (potentially irritating eccentric is vindicated, sort of, by his sheer human decency and quiet wisdom). Rylance’s performance certainly belongs in the same bracket as Jim Broadbent’s in the latter film.

On the other hand, the film walks a remarkable tightrope. Maurice Flitcroft may be the hero of the film, and you’re certainly on his side throughout proceedings, which is surely the intention of the script and director. But at the same time the film quite openly presents Flitcroft as a figure not entirely unlike Forrest Gump or Chance the gardener from Being There: he’s a droning halfwit with a fragile grasp of many key facts about the real world. Managing this trick is central to the film’s success and very smartly done. I suppose you could argue that Flitcroft, according to the film at least, is a kind of holy fool (the vision he has which inspires him to take up golf certainly feels like a moment of almost religious ecstasy) who may indeed be one of the world’s worst golfers but is filled with quiet wisdom which everyone around him eventually comes to appreciate.

As noted, most British comedies these days seem to bear a strong family resemblance to one another – they’re often based on a true story, either set in the past or in an archaic version of British society (thus facilitating a warm rush of nostalgia for the audience), usually feature one of those loveable everyman characters of the type we were discussing earlier, seldom feature much to frighten the figurative horses, content-wise, and – perhaps most notably, especially when you compare them to films of past eras – there’s invariably a strong moral premise which is carefully articulated in the course of the film. Again, this is seldom especially radical – be nice to other people, be part of a traditional community, get your work-life balance sorted out, and so on. The Phantom of the Open meets most of these criteria very comfortably.

This is not meant to sound superior and patronising. The British film industry seems to be in reasonably good health – much moreso than a few decades ago – and this is surely at least partly due to the fact it has hit upon a number of ‘banker’ genres like this one, which tend to bring in decent returns, certainly when they are well-produced. They may be a little on-the-nose and predictable, but this is equally true of many other popular genres. And The Phantom of the Open is certainly a superior example of the form, very well-played and scripted and directed with impressive skill.

So why does it feel like I am on the verge of qualifying all my praise for it? I’m honestly not entirely sure. In and of itself it is a very enjoyable film – but it feels like I have seen a huge number of very similar pieces over the last few decades. Perhaps it’s just that it does feel extremely familiar, a variation on a very common theme. I stress again that I thoroughly enjoyed it; less jaded watchers will probably enjoy it at least as much.

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It may well be the case that, with the benefit of hindsight, the comedy output of the UK network Channel 4 in the late 90s and early 2000s will be recognised as an extraordinary hothouse for cinematic talent. The success of Simon Pegg, Ricky Gervais and their associates – by far the majority of whom rose to fame on Four in that period – is ongoing and impressive. Joe Cornish, one of the creators of The Adam and Joe Show, has recently completed Attack the Block, an SF thriller that already has a tremendous buzz about it. And, perhaps most startling of all, Richard Ayoade has written and directed Submarine, one of the most distinctive and impressive movies I’ve seen in a long time.

Ayoade, to me at least, is most familiar as geek extraordinaire Moss from The IT Crowd and Dean Learner from Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. Submarine is not remotely like either of these programmes, being a coming-of-age story – a combination of drama and jet-black comedy that’s tonally somewhere between Donnie Darko, Gregory’s Girl, and Napoleon Dynamite.

Craig Roberts plays Oliver, a teenager growing up in a town on the Welsh coast, at some point in a deliberately indeterminate past (pedants will have a field day). Oliver’s father (Noah Taylor) is a marine biologist and failed Open University presenter, while his mother (Sally Hawkins) has an unrewarding office job. Despite his massive gaucheness and general inability to recognise basic emotional truths, Oliver’s attempts to impress eczema-prone temptress Jordana (a revelatory Yasmin Paige) are actually successful, and the two embark on a relationship which they agree is strictly to be non-romantic and unsentimental. But Oliver’s attention is distracted from his girlfriend: his parents are having a tough time, and things are not helped by the appearance of an old flame from his mother’s past: leather-trousered psychic guru Graham Purvis (Paddy Considine)…

What Submarine captures brilliantly is that moment in life when you have – to all intents and purposes – mature faculties, and the capacity for adult emotions, but a complete lack of the life-experience necessary to let you cope with them. It’s about attempting to be a grown-up, and then completely cocking it up. I found so much of it to be almost painfully familiar from my own adolescence: Ayoade’s script captures the awkwardness, the casual, unthinking cruelty, the moments of irresistible emotion, and above all the monumental self-absorption of being a teenager.

One of the things about being in your teens is that every single experience can feel like something epic and life-changing and utterly central to your being, when (of course) it’s almost always nothing of the sort. Submarine manages to communicate this, telling what’s ultimately a rather banal story with such style and confidence and wit that it does seem to be of much greater import than it probably is. This makes the film rather difficult to review effectively, but still.

What could have been a fairly cosy and nostalgic comedy is lifted to another level entirely by Richard Ayoade’s command of the camera and some beautiful cinematography. And this absolutely isn’t a cosy film, although I did laugh out loud throughout it. The humour is distinctly strange and very dark – one moment sees Oliver, with the authentically twisted logic of a teenager, deciding to help Jordana cope with a chronic illness in her family by poisoning her dog – and the whole thing is ruthlessly underplayed by the entire cast. Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige essentially carry the film and deliver a couple of – if there’s any justice – star-making performances. (I spent most of the film wondering why Paige seemed vaguely familiar before seeing her name in the credits and realising I had seven hours of her on DVD already – she’s almost unrecognisable from her stint in Sarah Jane.)

I suppose if I had to make criticisms of Submarine, it would be that the film tarries just little too long in its closing stages, that at times its confidence and style come very close to becoming outright smug pretentiousness, and that there isn’t quite enough Paddy Considine in it. But this is to quibble: Submarine is quite possibly my favourite film of the year so far, and it’s practically a scandal that in some parts of the UK it’s only on the art house circuit. Richard Ayoade has made a film with a genuinely cinematic vision, that manages to be, superficially, completely restrained, and yet at the same time deeply moving as well as very funny.  Highly recommended.

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