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Tommy's Honour
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by Jay Seaver

"Roughly at par."
3 stars

Normally, the movies that make me wish I’d brought someone else with me for a different perspective are aimed at kids, but things like "Tommy’s Honour" have a similar effect. It’s an amiable enough sporting biography, sure enough, but what the filmmakers tackle is specific enough that, while it won’t leave us non-golfers confused or out of the loop, it may perhaps have more interest to my golfing friends than it does to me, and if they’d find its details more intriguing.

While golf has been played in Scotland for centuries, it in many ways attained its modern form and had its popularity explode in the 1860s, when Tom Morris (Peter Mullan) was the groundskeeper and chief caddy at Saint Andrew, a maker of clubs and balls, and until recently one of the best players in both the Open (the world’s first) and matches organized on behalf of the club’s patrons. His son and namesake Tommy (Jack Lowden), on the other hand, is a prodigy, as good as his father ever was at the age of 15. The son is also canny enough to see that the wealthy gentlemen at the club are exploiting them, and willing to press that point. His rebellious nature also ruffles feathers at home, as Meg Drinnen (Ophelia Lovibond), the serving-girl he falls for, is six years his senior and considered scandalous for other reasons.

How tightly the actual action of playing a sport is integrated into a film like this is always a judgment call for the makers, especially when, as is the case here, there’s a not-inconsequential gap between the modern game and the way it would be played by these characters. Here, it's certainly fun to watch the game scenes from a time when golf was not quite refined into its current form; there’s a roughness to the grounds, equipment, and tactics that don’t match today’s fields where the grass is a perfect sea of green with every blade the exact same height. The differences from the modern game make it a bit harder to recognize young Tommy Morris's brilliance, perhaps, but the improvised game played, and the sometimes even rowdy crowds, can be a real kick to watch. It doesn’t hurt that director Jason Connery and writers Kevin Cook (who also wrote the book the film was based upon) & Pamela Martin are mostly casual with how they depict how the Morrises evolve the game, and the moments that do feel like origin detours at least have amusing stories to go with them.

On the other hand, if the look at early golf doesn’t interest the viewer, the story around it has to pick up the slack, and though the Morrises certainly lived lives with accomplishment and drama, it doesn’t always translate to film. There are times when the story does feel a bit generic; it observes the issues with class and snobbery that Tommy ran up against but doesn't use them as fodder, which is a real shame: The rise of the celebrity sportsman, and how it planted a seed toward class mobility is thematically rich, and the filmmakers tend to nibble at it, not seeing it as easily dramatic a sudden ill health. That the latter shaped the lives of the people in this story more directly is likely truthful, but even then, and even with one of those annoying bookending flash-forwards, the filmmakers can’t even make the full scale of that work.

The cast picks up a lot of slack, though. Peter Mullan is one of Scotland’s great character actors, and he settles into Tom Senior easily, establishing a firm authority and more subtle emotional range behind a shaggy beard than one might expect, establishing flaws without over-stating them. Jack Lowden, on the other hand, is just at the start of his career, and while he doesn’t quite pass as a teenager in the early scenes, he handles Tommy’s impulsiveness and ambition well, capturing how he’s a bit of a rebel for this time and place but not totally unbounded by it. He’s got a nice chemistry with Ophelia Lovibond, just tart enough to serve as an entertaining foil to Lowden and a sharp contrast to Therese Bradley as Tom’s pious wife.

It's a capable movie, if not a great one, and if golf is not exactly something never seen on screen, this early version is something interesting. It’s certainly making it worth a look when it's an intriguing option on a streaming service's menus, and maybe before.

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originally posted: 04/18/17 14:08:17
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  DVD: 18-Jul-2017



Directed by
  Jason Connery

Written by
  Pamela Marin
  Kevin Cook

  Sam Neill
  Ophelia Lovibond
  Peter Mullan
  Jack Lowden
  Max Deacon
  Peter Ferdinando

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