TOMMY’S HONOR (2016) review
written by: Pamela Marin and Kevin Cook
produced by: Jim Kreutzer, Bob Last and Tim Moore
directed by: Jason Connery
rated: PG (for thematic elements, some suggestive material, language and smoking)
runtime: 117 min.
U.S. release date: April 14, 2017 (limited)
I don’t know much about golf and can count the number of times I’ve played the sport on one hand, but that doesn’t mean I can’t respect the game and those who’ve excelled at it. Still, a film that revolves around golf, will have to bring much more to the screen than impressive swings and skilled putting to hold my interest. Thankfully, director Jason Connery has done just that by focusing on one of the founding fathers of golf and his illustrious son who went on to become one of the master golfers of the 19th century. “Tommy’s Honour” is a sports bio that not only illuminates key figures in golf, but also provides specific details of the history of the sport, offering a look at a time before powered carts and golf bags. There is a heartfelt story here that surpasses the interest of fervent golfers, resonating for any viewer.
The story in “Tommy’s Honour” takes place primarily in mid 1860s/early 1870s Scotland, in St. Andrews, a town due northeast of Edinburgh, known as the “home of golf” because of a certain father/son duo who would go on to have an everlasting impact on the game. We’re first introduced to white-bearded Tom “Old Tom” Morris (the ever stoic Peter Mullan) in the early 1900s, who is approached by a young journalist, George Atwood Jr. (Benjamin Wainwright “A Quiet Passion”) to see if he’d tell the tale of his legacy as well as that of his son, Tommy Morris Jr. (Jack Lowden “Denial” and “’71”). The majority tells young Tommy’s rise to local stardom, when Old Tom’s beard was red as the elder Morris recounts his story.
Old Tom was the humble greens-keeper for The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews then, serving the elitist “gentlemen” club members, such as Captain Alexander Boothby (Sam Neil), as a caddie and/or instructor of the grounds, whichever is requested. Old Tom’s world has been golf – after designing courses in Scotland, establishing the standard 18-holes per round requirement and winning the first major golf tournament, The Open Championship, two times in a row – he’s involved his sons in the game as well, from making golf balls to crafting clubs and irons. So much was this ingrained in them that his eldest, Tommy, shows signs of surpassing Old Tom’s proficiency for the sport.
At this time in Scotland, it was determined that one could make a living playing golf, which is why Old Tom had relegated himself to his position, yet Tommy didn’t see it that way. Although his methods and mindset are somewhat unorthodox, Tommy and his mates David (Max Deacon) and George (Paul Reid) see no reason why the game can’t evolve, which ruffles the feathers of the club members and humiliates Old Tom, their faithful employee. Nevertheless, Tommy goes on to succeed at the game, impressing his helpful (albeit reticent) father and winning the Open three times in a row (becoming the youngest winner to this day at age 17), with his name becoming something of a local legend.
With Old Tom fearing the loss of his son, he hopes that continuous victories at the Open keep Tommy at St. Andrews, despite Tommy’s sight set on games in London, where the game is growing in popularity. Remaining at home, Tommy defies the protocol of the arrogant club members who dismiss him solely due to his working class origins with the goal on earning his own wage from his wins, not just a percentage. During this time, he falls in love with Meg (Orphelia Lovibond), an older woman with a hidden past, which doesn’t sit well with his mother and the gossip-fueled church-going community, especially after the two get married. Throughout it all, Tommy remains determined to create his own path in life, while acknowledging the knowledge and skills of the game his father has passed on to him.
If you couldn’t tell by now, “Tommy’s Honour” is more than just a golf movie, it’s a compelling father and son story. It’s definitely at the heart of the film and the reason it was made to begin with. Golf almost becomes a background element to the complexities of the father and son who made such an indelible impact on the sport. Scottish director Connery grew up with his actor father, Sean, playing golf and one could imagine he knows a thing or two about complex father/son relationships. Connery has made himself a career of his own as an actor since the early 80s and has helmed a handful of movies since 2009, but knowing the setting, the history and the story, it feels like “Tommy’s Honour” is quite a personal film for the director. Seeing a father and his son take an interest and excel in a particular sport, with the son surpassing the father in talent, lends itself to engaging drama, especially when it’s apparent there is both respect and friction on each end of the relationship.
The screenplay by Pamela Martin and Kevin Cook (based on Cook’s 2007 book Tommy’s Honor: The Story of Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris, Golf’s Founding Father and Son) focuses on the obstacles and limitations Tommy encounters as the elite couldn’t fathom taking the son of a greenskeeper seriously, despite his undeniable talent and how his marriage to Meg ruffled some. The subplots may seem typical for the genre, but they never distract or deter from the main father/son drama. In fact, seeing the romance develop between Lowden’s Tommy and Lovibond’s Meg opens up the story a bit more and expands the characterization of Tommy in a necessary manner. It helps that Lovibond (who resembles a young Patsy Kensit) has great chemistry with Lowden and even though the trajectory of their relationship offers few surprises, the two together are enough to keep us invested in their story. In fact, once Meg is involved with Tommy, we see the Morris family gradually evolve as they band together to defend the town’s narrow-minded perception of Tommy’s wife and the church’s criticism of his pursuit of fame. It’s an aspect of the story that parallels the friction between Old Tom and Tommy.
However, the narrative device of telling a story through the memories of one specific character is usually problematic. Just like in “Titanic” where we see a fully-realized story that captures just about everything that transpired on board the fateful voyage, despite the story being told from the elderly Rose’s perspective, “Tommy’s Honour” touches on details that would surpass the recollection of elderly Old Tom. That may seem like a nitpicky observation, but the interview approach bookends the film, it’s hard not to be criticize it, especially since it’s an storytelling decision that rarely works.
Location plays an impacting factor in developing the atmosphere of “Tommy’s Honour”, with filming taking place in St. Andrews, Scotland, taking advantage of old architecture surrounded by lush greenery and misty seashores. The film relies on costume design as well, getting the period just right with gowns and lace for the ladies and tweed and knickers for the men, reminding us not only what everyone wore at this time and place, but also where golf apparel originated from. Speaking of origins, we also come to see how the idea of golf bags came about and why spectators had to stay behind a rope while the game was in play. It all makes sense and even if it isn’t completely accurate, it doesn’t really matter since it fits seamlessly to the story being told.
The film truly comes together thanks to Mullan and Lowden. Mullen is an actor I will follow anywhere. Sure, he’s become known for playing disciplined fathers/husbands, often domineering ones, but he exudes such a committed and convincing portrayal of these characters, that he becomes a welcome sight in any film he’s in. As Old Tom, Mullan is given the opportunity to play a father who’s also afraid of losing his son, allowing the actor a chance to inject vulnerability and humility to the role. Lowden’s career will get a boost later this year with Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk”, but here he delivers a fine performance that balances natural talent for the sport and understandable confidence. Although the real-life Tommy was in his teens and Lowden is clearly older, the actor fills the role nicely, providing a charm, determination and intensity.
If you’re paying close enough attention, there’s some sketchy CGI at work here, but I found myself more attentive to the flesh and blood of the film. Movies revolving around golf are rarely a draw for me, but “Tommy’s Honour” won me over with it’s effective study of familial bonds during a specific, game-changing period in the history of the game.