No, this is not your father’s game of golf. As a matter of fact, it’s your great-great-grandfather’s game, assuming he lived in the late 19th century in Scotland, home to the modern game.
“Tommy’s Honour” unpacks this fascinating history through the story of a father-and-son team that pioneered the modern game of professional golf. These would be, as they were known and often billed, Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris.
The former is the true father of golf as he designed courses, perfected equipment and course management and played into his old age on the St. Andrews Links with uncommon skill while his son, Tom Morris Jr., was the game’s first “superstar.” With the charisma of a young Tiger Woods and athletic skills, trick shots and game savvy, Young Tom revolutionized how the game was played.
The film from golfing enthusiast and director Jason Connery (and son of Sean) throws the emphasis on the son’s story, a much shorter one since he died young. Even so he lived a colorful life filled with drama and conflict aplenty.
Dour Old Tom, played by that stalwart Scottish actor Peter Mullan, relates the tale of his talented, headstrong son, Young Tom, thus giving a star turn to Jack Lowden, a handsome devil who displays excellent form as both actor and golfer, making it all look far too easy. (He even looks a bit like his historic character seen in old photos at the movie’s end.)
Lowden is matched in areas of acting and good looks by Ophelia Lovibond, playing Meg Drinnen, the “older” woman who catches the young golf phenom’s eye. The always reliable Sam Neill is on hand to represent the old guard of stuffy gentlemen who frown upon commoners whose skill demands inclusion into their clubby, class-conscious world.
So “Tommy’s Honour” — an unfortunate generic title — lines up a solid cast for a compelling but little-known story (at least for someone who is not a golfer) set in the rugged grandeur of Scotland’s rustic links in contrast to the well-manicured courses of today’s game.
Old Tom’s story picks up with the ascendancy of his first-born son on those greens. (Young Tom would be about 17 at the time but the film plays little attention to the aging process over the course of seven-some years.) This stirs both pride and confusion in the older man since his son fails to heed the rules of that other more crucial game — the game of life, which dictates commoners know their place and kowtow to the high-born.
Young Tom can lick just about anyone on the links, most often besting all comers by teaming with his dad in challenge matches, played by an alternate shot format, which was the principal form of competition at that time.
What grates on the younger man is the betting format that allows the wealthy nobility to keep most of the winnings, leaving the players to the mercy of the results and a match’s patrons. His skills are appreciated enough though that he can overturn the whole system, being among the first players to insist on receiving money up front before a match is held.
While striking a blow for the “rights of man,” as he puts it, Young Tom also upsets the conventional norm — and thus comes into conflict with his sternly Christian mother — over his choice in girlfriend and then wife. Meg is sufficiently older and with a “shameful” past to infuriate his mother. Yet this conflict is over quickly enough.
For the movie, adapted by Pamela Marin and Kevin Cook from Cook’s 2007 book, “Tommy’s Honor: The Story of Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris, Golf’s Founding Father and Son,” is all too quick to get back on the greens. Perhaps too quick.
For the movie does seem to short change the dynamics between mother and son, son and his fiancée and even Young Tom’s relationships with younger friends and fellow golfers. You wonder what someone like Ken Loach might have done to burrow into the complex relationships and societal rigidity in Victorian Scotland this movie only touches upon lightly.
Nevertheless, “Tommy’s Honour” is an agreeable period picture on an unusual subject and blessed with three superb performances. Lowden engagingly captures the supreme self-confidence of the young athlete that wins over nearly everyone to his side. His lanky frame turns stunningly graceful when playing the game and his sly smile warms many a chilly Scottish day.
Mullan is gruff and undemonstrative yet this father clearly loves his son dearly. Even in his arguments with the younger Morris he backs away from strongly held positions as if he sees the future through his own son’s eyes.
Lovibond is smart and sassy enough in this role that you wish her stronger scenes to display Meg’s courage and growing warmth as her life takes such a sudden turn through the undeniable love of her husband.
Scot accents are just thick enough one might also wish for subtitles on occasion but you are won over by outstanding production values that take full advantage of the Scottish locations buoyed by J period designs, costumes (especially the ties, tweed coats and hats worn on the links) and stunning cinematography.
Opens: April 14, 2017 (Roadside Attractions)
Production company: Gutta Percha Productions
Cast: Peter Mullan, Jack Lowden, Ophelia Lovibond, Sam Neill
Director: Jason Connery
Screenwriters: Pamela Marin, Kevin Cook
Based on the book by: Kevin Cook
Producers: Keith Bank, Bob Last, Jim Kreutzer, Tim Moore
Executive producers: Keith Bank, Ken Whitney
Director of photography: Gary Shaw
Production designer: James Lapsley
Music: Christian Henson
Editor: John Scott
No rating, 112 minutes