‘Tommy’s Honour’: Film Review | Palm Springs 2017

Courtesy of Gutta Percha Productions
A handsomely mounted period piece.

Peter Mullan and Jack Lowden star in Jason Connery’s historical drama about the founders of the modern game of golf.

As the widely acknowledged home of golf, Scotland holds a particular attraction for both professional and amateur players, who revere the region’s renowned courses and celebrate its pivotal place in the history of the sport. Central to that heritage are the names Tom Morris (known as Old Tom) and Tommy Morris (Young Tom), 19th century originators of the contemporary game’s most distinguishing features, many of them detailed in Kevin Cook’s 2007 book, Tommy's Honor: The Story of Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris, Golf's Founding Father and Son.

Adapted by Scotsman Jason Connery, himself an avid golfer like his famed father Sean, this historical account offers an engrossing and accessible celebration of the game’s modern origins, enhanced by striking locations and a standout cast, led by Scottish actors Peter Mullan and Jack Lowden. Roadside Attractions should see an enthusiastic turnout for the April 14 U.S. release, coinciding with the opening of the North American professional season.

The United Kingdom in the 19th century was still a nation sharply divided by class. Without access to resources or higher education, the vast underclasses toiled in poverty, much as Tom Morris (Mullan) struggles to support his family of six as the greenskeeper and golf instructor at Scotland’s storied St. Andrews links. By the time that his first-born son Tommy (Lowden, A United Kingdom) arrives, Morris already enjoys a reputation as a renowned golfer and championship competitor.

Growing up playing the St. Andrews course prepares Tommy well for his amateur debut in 1868 at the age of 17, about the point that Connery’s adaptation of Cook’s account intersects the Morris family timeline. Headstrong and reluctant to follow his father’s path to become a caddy for wealthy golfers and then perhaps earn a position as a greenskeeper, Young Tom instead dreams of a career as a golf professional, a distinction reserved for gentlemen of the time, not commoners.

Winning an unprecedented three successive Challenge Belt trophies in the annual Open Championships (now known as the British Open) sets him on his way as a sought-after competitor for informal “challenge matches” against other players, with the victors receiving a cut of the winnings determined by their sponsors. Staked by Alexander Boothby (Sam Neill), captain of the St. Andrews club, along with other members, Tommy partners with Old Tom to profitably compete against local rivals.

By now the script, by Cook and Pamela Marin, has firmly established the intense father-son fairway rivalry and conflicting views of Old Tom and Young Tom as a very public clash between tradition and innovation, although it surely takes some liberties in playing up the sentimentality of later scenes. As Tommy repeatedly challenges the accepted system of match sponsorship, pushing to keep a larger share of his winnings, Tom hews to his deferential position as a loyal employee who refuses to question the established order.   

Mullan wields the role of Old Tom like a trusty one-wood, berating Tommy to fall in line or face the consequences of his insubordination, which could conceivably push the family into financial ruin. In rare moments of tenderness or reflection, though, Mullan calls upon impressive reserves of emotion to convey Tom’s unwavering dedication to his family, perhaps most especially his wayward son.

Young Tom’s disregard for authority extends even to his sternly Christian mother, who disapproves of him courting Meg Drinnen (The Autopsy of Jane Doe's Ophelia Lovibond), a restaurant worker nearly 10 years his senior with a shameful past. Tommy further distances himself from Old Tom as his father’s game begins to fall off and the St. Andrews members pressure him to make way for Tommy to go professional and start playing with a younger golfer. When Tommy’s new partner is forced to withdraw from an upcoming tour due to an injury, however, Tom and Tommy pair up again in what proves to be their final partnership on the links.

As the slighted son determined to prove his worth to his family and the entire golfing community, Lowden very effectively handles Tommy’s confrontations with Old Tom and the St. Andrews club members, then adroitly pivots to reveal an unexpected sentimental streak while attempting to romance Meg. Lovibond probably deserved a more challenging character arc than the Victorian morality subplot that she gets stuck with, although she’s more than up to the task of demonstrating Meg’s quick wit and reluctant warmth.

Although neither of his leads is a golfer, as an experienced actor himself Connery expertly coaches them to demonstrate sufficient familiarity with the game, relying on some unobtrusive VFX to ensure that their strokes are on target. Even with a distinct emphasis on the father-son dynamic, the helmer also succeeds admirably in highlighting some of the social conflicts of the era and conceiving a lively romance between Tommy and Meg.

Outstanding production design, creative costuming and historically accurate locations enhance the overall authenticity of the film, which is buoyed throughout by Christian Henson’s lyrical score.

Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival (World Cinema Now)
Distributor: Roadside Attractions
Production company: Gutta Percha Productions
Cast: Peter Mullan, Jack Lowden, Ophelia Lovibond, Sam Neill
Director: Jason Connery
Screenwriters: Pamela Marin, 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
Editor: John Scott
Music: Christian Henson
Casting director: Colin Jones

Not rated, 112 minutes