The strength of any film with a sports theme is this: If it presents the sport as interesting to a viewer who has no interest, then it’s done its job. If this is the case, then, for the most part, Tommy’s Honour has certainly succeeded.
Framed as a meeting between an elderly Scottish man with a story to tell and a young, local journalist, Tommy’s Honour (British spelling retained for the American release) is a drama depicting the real-life story of two working-class men; their relationship, their conflicts, and their personal competition. One is the father, burly Old Tom Morris (Peter Mullan), the other, the son, Young Tom Morris (Jack Lowden), and both men will go on to pioneer Scottish golfing, become champions, and be known as golf’s founding father and son. But there’s tragedy in the telling. ‘The truth is,” states Old Tom, “He was better than I. He was better than all of us.”
As directed by Jason Connery, son of Sean, who clearly knows a thing or two about golf in Scotland, the setting is 1866 in St. Andrews. Old Tom is the keeper of the greens for The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, today, one of the most famous and esteemed golf clubs in the world, and it’s here where he founded the first major golf tournament, The Open Championship, which he also won, twice. Old Tom is also known as the man who brought about the golfing standard of 18 holes per round.
But with a new generation comes the questioning of established, time-honored rules. Young Tom is just fifteen, plus, like his father, he’s a keen golfer, yet there are moments when he would like to see change on the golf course, and it’s this clash of ideas and a young man’s desire to alter things in an ever changing world that causes conflict between father and son.
“He’s like a growing weed,” observes one of the exclusive and decidedly proud club members while watching Young Tom play, but as we’ll discover in a culture where class, station, and the judgmental attitude towards those of a lower-standing is everything, the man adds, “He’ll make a fine caddy one day.” But Young Tom has no interest in being anyone’s caddy, nor for the unwritten rules of the game.
Conflicts ensue when the young man presents a new way of payment for playing golf. Initially, the system had always been that the upper-class club members financed the competition and placed bets on the lower-class players. The golfers played for tips, whatever was thrown their way. Young Tom wanted to be paid to play.
When it comes to watching a game as presented in Tommy’s Honour, the intriguing aspect of observing 19th century golf is becoming aware of the differences. The grass is considerably harsher, no manicured lawns, balls are hand-made and hand-painted, clubs are wooden, plus there’s roughness among those who watch; unruly arguments and fist-fights were a regular occurrence. In fact, in the film’s telling, it’s not so much the segments depicting the game that interests, it’s those unruly arguments and conflicts of character.
When Young Tom, still in his early twenties, courts the affections of an older woman with a questionable past, Meg (Ophelia Lovibond), the woman tells him, “I’m twenty-eight-years-old. Best find yourself a school girl.” But Tommy persists, despite the protests of his mother. “You’ll not see that woman again!” she declares. And when Young Tom attempts to bring about change in the golfing world, even the local priest at mass declares before the community from the pulpit, “Some seek to rise above their station! Above their status!”
For some, Tommy’s Honour may be slow paced, and can even appear as a little too tasteful in its narrative. More scenes of emotional conflict would have been welcomed. When Meg, now married to Tom, confronts her objecting mother-in-law in a heated face-to-face, she insists, “I have the rights of any wife.” “But not of a mother!” comes the charged response. More moments like that, particular between father and son, would have helped elevate the film’s rhythm a notch above a regular Sunday evening costumed BBC drama on Masterpiece Theatre, with which, from an American point-of-view, the film’s style can’t help but be equated. Yet Tommy’s Honour remains an intriguing account of two pioneers, presented with a keen sense of time and atmosphere, and two excellent performances from its leads, Peter Mullen and Jack Lowden, plus good support from Ophelia Lovibond as Young Tom’s wife with a past, and a perfect embodiment of the aristocratic attitude towards those in a class below, Sam Neil as Alexander Boothby, the Captain of St Andrews.
British audiences will be aware of the characters and their outcomes, particularly in Scotland where the story of Old Tom and Young Tom is legend, though most of this will be new to American audiences. Plus, the conflicts caused by the differing nature of class and social status in the British golfing world, while an accepted part of the game’s history in the UK, may also be new and perhaps unfathomable stateside. So, consider the following.
Less than twenty years ago, an English friend attempted to join a golf club in his home town. When interviewed, the board members had little interest in his golfing abilities. All they wanted to know was the status of his father and where his father was educated. Evidently, local schooling wasn’t good enough. The friend’s application was refused. Rules of the game, how it’s played and the grounds and equipment used, even the rowdiness of the onlookers, may have changed since Old Tom’s days, but some things will always remain the same.
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 112 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)