‘Tommy’s Honour’ birdies, pars and bogeys
Directed by: Jason Connery
Written by: Pamela Martin and Kevin Cook
Starring: Jack Lowden, Peter Mullan, Ophelia Lovibond, and Sam Neill
“Tommy’s Honour” – “I love the way the game of golf is lived and played in Scotland. I always have.” – Tom Watson
Many, many fans rightfully consider Tom Watson as golf-royalty, but “Tommy’s Honour” is a biopic about another athlete of the links, Tommy Morris (Jack Lowden), a 19th Century prodigy from Scotland.
He is also known as Young Tom, because his father – naturally – is nicknamed Old Tom (Peter Mullan), a masterful greenskeeper at the legendary St Andrews golf course. Director Jason Connery chronicles Tommy’s rise as a professional golfer against two main themes. His struggles in a frictional relationship with his father and a spoken - not unspoken - financial class system alive and well in the 1860s and 1870s.
Mullan is perfectly cast – while sporting memorable facial hair - as a vastly knowledgeable man who is resigned to “knowing” his place within the golf community.
For example, after Tom wins a caddie tournament, one of the club members exclaims, “Now, you got work to do. Get the scorecards.”
Tom accepts his given, preordained place in the world. On the other hand, Tommy does not. Lowden capably portrays Tommy as an idealist pioneer who loves golf and wants to make money as a professional, perhaps play in England for “money, glory and fun!”
Connery clearly paints a picture of professional golf as very different from the PGA Tour that we know today. No Titleist sponsorships and Golf Channel television coverage exist in 19th Century Scotland. Instead, golfers make money via gambling props. The aristocratic gamers assemble matches and distribute winnings like hucksters arranging street fights, and their paying “customers” circle and cheer the combatants while tightly gripping their betting slips.
Connery includes some unusual sights, such as fans standing on the fairway and watching drives land just a few yards in front of them. Additionally, we see occasional jeers from those losing bets and an actual fistfight or two breaking out. Tommy accepts all of this, because golf is a route to make his own way.
Along the way, Tommy is faced with the challenges of his father and breaking through a cast system of sorts, but the script does not cinematically contest him enough, and that is a problem with the picture. Yes, Tommy engages in an occasional argument with his father or St Andrews Captain Alexander Boothby (Sam Neill), but one never really feels that the young golfer’s destiny is significantly challenged. The movie’s narrative barriers are not steep enough, and therefore the tension rarely rises to its intended level. Well, it does during the third act, but with a runtime of 1 hour 57 minutes, the film takes a while to get there.
Tommy’s journey takes a leisurely path during his reign as a professional golfer in a sport sometimes noted for the same tones. Similar hushed tones are reserved for his three younger siblings, two brothers and a sister. The script includes them in multiple scenes - in and out of the Morris home - but without meaningful screen time. Other than Lizzie’s (Kylie Hart) sisterly affection for Tommy’s love interest, Meg (Ophelia Lovibond), and one brother’s unfortunate inability to walk, the audience does not receive many chances to learn about them.
On the other hand, Connery provides the audience many, many opportunities to experience Scotland’s scenic beauty, including the film’s jaw dropping opening shot of the country’s coastline, several rustic moments during matches, our first memorable look at Old Tom emerging from the ocean, and even a momentary pause from golf to watch a pack of horses rumble past the camera. While Connery and cinematographer Gary Shaw present Scotland’s best looks on display, Robert Macfarlane’s impeccable touch with costume design completely transports us 145 years into the past.
This includes the golf courses as well, with all of the challenging, countryside nuances that links golf can provide. We see sand traps, rock traps, puddle traps, and the occasional duck standing in the field of play. Golfers will enjoy soaking up much of the pastoral surroundings, putts cutting through long green blades and drives from the tee boxes.
Connery gets so much of the sights and sounds right, but unfortunately, does not become creative enough during match play. We see Tommy and others repeatedly drive from the same camera angle, just a few yards away from every golfer, which almost made this moviegoer want to step out of my seat, walk into the big screen and stand behind them or perhaps stare down from overhead. A special effects shot or two that follows a golf ball’s path would have added to the wonder and drama of the matches.
Having said that, “Tommy’s Honour” certainly brings light to an extraordinary, influential athlete and an understanding of Tom Watson’s aforementioned love of the sport in its homeland. The picture generates a polite golf clap from me, and I do have an itch to pick up Kevin Cook’s 2007 book about Tommy Morris, grab my clubs and hop on plane to Scotland.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.