By Elias Savada.
Both old school and old-fashioned come together in style and substance in Tommy’s Honour, Jason Connery’s passable historical look at golf. The drab (in a good, yet unexciting way) production design is definitely Scottish mid-19th century, and the acting could be called grand without being exceptional. Think a Lifetime movie on the Golf Channel.
The film successfully recreates the sport as it was being played in the 1860s and 1870s, when it was still in its infancy compared to today’s standards. No greens, no tees (mounds of mud or clay were finger fashioned to lift a white-washed ball up from the ground), no purses (except those possibly held by the few women observers), and no clothing adorned with hundreds of trademarks and logos. Back spin was on the cusp of discovery. Surprisingly, golf was also a contact sport, albeit between wagering onlookers and the players. Lots of pushing, with a smattering of a few fisticuffs.
Can you feel the excitement? I couldn’t.
Plenty of unusual facial hair is featured, as the film’s makeup artists had a field day molding an interesting blend of moustaches, sideburns, and beards. It was a nice distraction.
Sports fans should get a bigger kick out of the film than cinephiles, although American audiences in general may have a hard time with some of the Scottish dialect. At one point in the film, Old Tom Morris (a fine Peter Mullan) asks his young son, “How are you going to make eleven?” and I thought he might be talking about a huge bogey. The sentence was actually “How are you going to make a living?” So you may wish the film had subtitles.
The son, a light-hearted, arrogant Tommy “Young Tom Morris” (based on the real golfer, and played by Jack Lowden), made his professional mark early, winning his first Open Championship at the ripe age of 17 (three years after he first competed). That record for the youngest major champion still remains intact. His father, also a ruler of the sport who would later become a greenkeeper and course designer, pushes his son into the game while at the Prestwick golf club. Their relationship is pushed as a light roller coaster ride of stormy, cloudy, and fair skies. Sometimes the father and lad played together or against others, although the young whippersnapper has his own ideas about equality on the course. Particularly when butting heads with the rich “gentlemen” club members, some broad in girth and style, others stiff and stuffy – like too much of the dialogue.
The film also lightly touches on the era’s puritanical influences surrounding class differences, particularly involving the romance between Tommy and Meg Drinnen (Olivia Lovibond), a lower class tavern worker five years older than the 23-year-old lad. These moments play out for what tension the film offers. The script by Pamela Marin (her debut) and Kevin Cook (also, his first, based on his book of the same name) is derivative of other sport films, but lacking the underdog stylings of 2005’s Greatest Game Ever Played (one of the two features directed by the late Bill Paxton). Tommy’s Honour drops near the same historical (or fantasy) cup as Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius (2004) and The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000). While the underlying tome won an award for best golf book of 2007 from the U.S. Golf Association, the film has mustered just a best feature film award from the BAFTA Awards, Scotland.
The brief appearances by Irish-born, New Zealand-raised Sam Neil as Alexander Boothby, the obstinate ruler of the club at St. Andrews, add a little spark. His role, like others in the film, suffers from the literate nature of the script and scenes that are cut too short.
Director Connery, son of Sean, an actor turned director now on his fifth feature, doesn’t offer much (at)traction on the links here. There’s plenty of eye starring closeups, but Connery’s hampered by the script’s limitations and the film’s apparently meager budget.
The sport, Scottish through and through for over 500 years, has a thread showing the sport’s growing interest in England, with Tommy being courted by the Brits to build up a presence there. While Tommy’s Honour tries to expand the sport’s stage, it putters along like a glorified public service announcement for visiting Scotland (it’s on my wish list) and golf.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).