I will never fully understand films that contribute to the deification of golf or other sports. In certain books but especially in cinema, golf is treated as if its players must channel other-worldly forces in order to make a ball land near or go in a hole. Indeed, maybe that’s what some players feel, but boy, does it seem silly when you’re watching it on the big screen. That being said, Tommy’s Honour celebrates actual achievements and innovations to the way the game was not only played but also organized, where the best players weren’t just low-paid pawns of wagering aristocrats but were elevated to genuine sports heroes.
As you may have guessed, I don’t give a lick about golf. However, I do appreciate an interesting story, and the tale of real-life Scottish groundskeepers “Old” Tom (Peter Mullan) and “Young” Tommy Morris (Jack Lowden, mostly recently in A United Kingdom) is a fascinating one. They were both fine players in their own right and were often paired in doubles matches, playing for the exceedingly rich Alexander Boothby (Sam Neill), who paid them a pittance of what he won from their efforts. When Tommy’s notoriety made him the most sought after golfer for competitions, he turned the tables on the rich, demanding that he get all the money and paying Boothby a small fee for setting up the matches. It was the first of many changes and inventions the young Morris brought to the game.
Watching the downright primitive nature of the games at the time (rough terrains, overgrown vegetation, spectators practically on top of the players) is actually a hoot, especially when you consider how much these factors didn’t seem to impact play. Director Jason Connery (son of Sean Connery) takes full advantage of the picturesque landscapes that surround Scotland’s finest courses and the quaint towns that surround and service them, and where father and son Morris spent a great deal of their time away from home.
Tommy’s Honour also delves into the son’s personal life, in particular his courtship of the slightly older Meg Drinnen (Ophelia Lovibond, of The Autopsy of Jane Doe and Guardians of the Galaxy), who has a few secrets of her own that threaten to destroy the relationship and her reputation in the town where they live (mind you, this takes place in the late 1860s and early 1870s). But Young Tommy is deeply in love, and despite his parents insistence that Meg’s scandalous reputation is reason enough to break things off, he refuses and marries her quickly.
The movie traces Young Tommy’s rapid ascension in the golf world, even playing against the best from London, but that story is intertwined with personal heartbreak, tragedy, short tempers and more than a few soaring victories. Lowden and Lovibond are positively glowing on screen, as the deeply in love couple that inspire each other through life. But it’s Mullan as the stalwart Old Tom that brings a quiet, subtle strength and compassion to a role that could have been played as simply stoic and flat. He’s got a face that should be carved into the side of a mountain and an onscreen disposition of a wild animal when provoked, and he uses all of that to great effect here.
Written by Pamela Marin and Kevin Cook, Tommy’s Honour is that rare sports film that fully captures the passion and emotional connection that some players have to their chosen pursuit. Old Tom’s first love was the game; Young Tommy’s was his wife, but loving her made him a better player. And the Morris men made an interesting pair, on and off the links. Perhaps not for everyone, the movie rises above your standard-issue sports outing and moves it into a more cultured and meaningful place. This one may actually surprise you.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.