Dir: Jason Connery
Starr: Peter Mullan, Jack Lowden, Ophelia Lovibond, Sam Neill
Viewed: 70th EIFF Opening Gala Event, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Jason Connery has presented the EIFF with an opening film that is simultaneously a crowd-pleasing sports drama, a picture postcard portrait of the Fife coastal town of St Andrews (and its love affair with golf) and a curious study of father-son relationships. The competent nature of the production should assuage any concerns that Connery Jr had used Connery Snr’s relationship with the EIFF to promote this feature above its station.
As gala opening festival films go this is a safe and comfortable choice. It appeals to the culturally nationalist proclivities of the present Scottish government, whilst having little of the alienatingly parochial that has burdened some previous Scottish film productions. It is essentially a biopic of Tom Morris Jr (played with gusto by Jack Lowden, looking like a blue-eyed Simon Pegg) and the tragic golfer’s relationship with his legendary father Old Tom Morris (another stolid turn from Mullan). It is adapted by Pamela Marin and Kevin Cook from the latter’s book of the same name, and effectively details the first tentative steps toward the professionalisation of golf as a competitive sport. The quality of the writing is often rather cumbersome, seeming to already be consciously reaching for immortality rather than finding the natural cadences and rhythms of ever day speech. However, Mullan’s laconic portrayal of the elder Morris manages to normalise many of the more overly portentous passages of dialogue (“A man has to use every club he has”).
An enmity and respect between father and son is what underpins the drama of the film. Mullan’s father has managed to improve the lives and prospects of his family significantly within a generation, yet he is still the caddie, the greenkeeper, the club manufacturer. The likes of Sam Neill’s Alexander Boothby still lord it over Old Tom Morris, and he in turn shows due deference to their aristocratic status. By comparison Morris Jr wishes to use his skills at playing the game of golf to stride upward within the claustrophobic British class system. Unlike his father he sees no need to ‘serve’ the likes of Boothby. The film’s opening sequence succinctly captures the core of the drama by showing how Morris Snr’s career of service to the aristocratic club members of St Andrews has given his son an opportunity to hone his singular talents at the game of golf. One of the wealthy onlookers comments upon Morris Jr’s penchant for an audaciously risky shot with a degree of approval: “Gambler’s spirit. Duly noted”.
Undoubtedly much of the film’s potential cross-over appeal stems from Connery’s use of location shooting within Fife (St Andrews and Falkland), as well as the film’s ability to connect this story of golfing derring-do to more universal concerns. The director’s decision to keep things neat and straightforward, particularly with regard to the increasing social difficulties that Morris Jr experienced, could be one of the reasons why the film lacks a degree of tension. St Andrews is depicted as a place of wealth and propriety, whereas Musselburgh is the preserve of the Park Brothers (Willie and Mungo) and their boisterously boorish nouveau riche ways. A similarly blunt dichotomy is observed with regard to Morris Jr’s love affair with Meg Drinnen (ably played by Ophelia Lovibond despite the underwritten nature of the role). Meg’s past before she came to St Andrews is shown as the pitiable poverty of a BBC Dickens adaptation, all perfectly placed soot, muck and grime. Such stark divisions make for lukewarm drama, especially when the young protagonist of the film is doing his utmost to navigate a new path between them. Another problem of the dramatic narrative is the unavoidable fact that Morris Jr died ridiculously young, aged just 24. Even taking in to account his sporting achievements and the tragic circumstances of his family life, their really isn’t much room for character development. The film is left with a deeply unsatisfying design because it has so little to explore beyond the tragic hero.
That said Connery’s decision to focus most attention upon the relationship between the brash and brilliant young Morris Jr and his stubbornly traditional, and yet highly innovative, father, manages to create a highly affecting final sequence. It is intriguing to consider just how much of this aspect of the narrative Connery himself identifies with. The degree of self-interest that drives Morris Snr to withhold a vital piece of information from his son until after they have completed a golf match in which the older man had rediscovered his former glory, smacks of the kind of truthful insight that can only come from intense experience. Are the audience to read something of the Morris’s into the Connery’s? There is assuredly an understanding and empathy throughout the film for the younger Morris’s need to move out from his father’s considerable shadow. In the case of Jason Connery it seems this may have been achieved by a sidestep into film directing, rather than film acting.