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Tommy’s Honour

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Drama charting the relationship between golf’s great 19th Century innovators is po-faced and pedestrian

Image of Tommy’s Honour

Edinburgh International Film Festival

Jason Connery/ US UK/ 2016/ 113 mins

It’s a sad irony that in depicting a father and son relationship forged in the uncomfortable friction between tradition and progress, Jason Connery chooses a path so resolutely generic.

Old Tom Morris and his son, Tommy, are widely credited as the progenitors of the game of golf as we know it during the 1860s and 70s.  Tom the elder founded the Open Championship and established many of the rules of the game.  The younger Morris was a real prodigy and relentless innovator.  Between them they won eight of the first sixteen Opens.

Tommy’s Honour is undoubtedly a handsome and reverent telling of the story.  Peter Mullan plays Tom Sr. with shaggy, leonine dignity and innate decency, and Jack Lowden, looking very much like a young Simon Pegg, is all charm and brio as the sport’s first showman.  Neither can be faulted.  However, they’re saddled with a script with too few moments of levity, and occasionally cumbersome expositional dialogue, no doubt designed to mollycoddle golfing neophytes.

The film’s biggest issue, and it’s one that any sporting biopic has to solve, is that it singularly fails to ignite engagement in those for whom the sport depicted holds no interest.  Rocky this isn’t.  It isn’t even Happy GilmoreThe golfing scenes are numerous, repetitive and interminable.  They are also bizarrely edited, giving no sense of the distance travelled after a ball is struck, rendering dialogue such as, ‘I’ve never seen a man hit a ball so far’, meaningless without real visual evidence.

Occasionally, wider issues are addressed.  Tommy’s wife had a previous child out of wedlock, the discovery of which causes unrest within the family and damages their standing in the wider, staunchly traditional, community.  Tommy also challenges the St. Andrews golfing hierarchy, in which the local gentry can profit happily from his success while not allowing him membership of the club.  It’s surely class agitation such as this that has led to the sport becoming the crucible of social progress it is today.

These infinitely more interesting threads are unfortunately only cursorily glanced at, before being discarded in favour of more scenes at the greens.  This approach also means that by the time the plot flounders into sentiment and coarse, predictable melodrama, it doesn’t have the intended impact.  The big emotional moments are cloying and obvious, even without prior knowledge of young Morris’ life (to which it appears the film is largely faithful), culminating in a laughably ripe attempt to bludgeon the heartstrings.

It isn’t completely awful.  The gruffly affectionate chemistry between Mullan and Lowden goes a long way to regain wandering attention, but Connery assumes his audience will find golf as inherently interesting as he does.  So while a smile is raised as Tommy demonstrates backspin with the same lightbulb joy as Archimedes leaping from his bath, the attention to the sport never papers over the cracks of a potentially interesting story indifferently told.