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By Richard von Busack April 14, 2017
The title of Tommy's Honour--"It's your honor, Your Honor," as that line to Ted Knight goes in Caddyshack--puns on the superior golf skills and the integrity of the sport's early champion Tommy Morris Jr. His feats are still in the record books nearly 150 years later.
This biopic, which played at Cinequest this year, is directed by Jason Connery. He's the son of Sean, one of Earth's most dedicated golfers. Connery was also the star of one of the movies' most deathless golfing scenes in Goldfinger (1965) in which the fat, ruthless and orange-hued villain (Gert Froebe) reveals his bad character at the course in Stoke Park, Buckinghamshire. Best to avoid the armchair psychologizing about Jason's own feelings toward his father Tommy Sr., even if the movie concerns the relationship between a strict Scottish elder and his son.
In the middle of Victoria's reign, Tommy Morris (Peter Mullen) was the greens keeper at St. Andrews, a ball maker and club-designer. He's a tradesman surrounded by snide gentleman. He's salaried, but makes extra caddying for the gentry. His take-home depends on how much the players want to tip him during their side bets during the game. Summing up, his son the young Tommy (Jack Lowden) says "My work is to empty the pockets of crap golfers." Later on, at a Hogmanay party, he and his friends dedicate themselves to being "Buccaneers of golf."
Connery excels in showing the changing of times, the shifting from the early to the middle Victorian era over the course of the young Tommy's short life. The early days of golf seem full of the kind of rule-bending and scuffles key to early prize-fighting and baseball. Even in the course of just these two decades, the 1860s and 1870s, we can see the world getting richer and stodgier. The sport heads south to England, which means an increase in traffic from rich lordly Brits to the golf course.
There is a Thomas Hardy-like quality to the romance in the film: the young Tom's courtship of a slightly older lady. Margaret called Meg (Ophelia Lovibond), gives Tommy's Honour some sauce; she's quite fetching in lemon-yellow clothing, and she has one of those cantilevered mouths that doesn't quite conceal her fine teeth. She lets some sun into an overcast movie, and that's good. A golf film ought to be more than just whiskery gents in top hats glowering at a ball hit far into the rough.
An end title crawl mentions the fact that golf is "now enjoyed by 60 million people"--the politically resentful might add, "who control the destinies of the other 6.94 billion in the world." Connery discusses the snobbery embedded in the roots of the game--denied by some, and proven by that joke about the white fans of Tiger Woods in Get Out. He's talking about something golf movies usually don't address.
The ever-underrated Sam Neill, as the chair of St. Andrews, is there to remind Tommy of his roots. This grandson of a loom weaver better not get above his breeding: "Your station in life was set before you were born, young Morris!" At 69, Neill looks terrific in muttonchops and a crimson coat, tuned up to day-glo by the color correcting. He was believable, even if the way the point is expressed isn't. As in all scenes of prejudice, it's not what's said but what's insinuated.
Tommy's Honour is best at outlining procedures, such as the development of refinements to the cudgels: the elder Morris designing grooves on the heavy end of the club to prevent a wet ball from going out of bounds, and a flat bottom to keep inept golfers from ploughing up the turf. But the script had its share of anachronisms--observing a new kind of stroke on the field, an onlooker says "Wait! What did I just see?" as if he lived in 2017. Sadly, in this movie, you tend to know what you're going to see before you see it.