Golf, to those who agree with Mark Twain, may be nothing more than a way to spoil a good walk. However, in Tommy’s Honour, a stuffy new biopic from director Jason Connery, the game has something of the opposite effect. It only makes things more relentlessly pedestrian.
Tommy Morris (or Young Tom, as he is sometimes known), played here by Jack Lowden, won the U.K.’s Open Championship in 1868 at the age of seventeen and went on to win the next three as well, a streak that remains unbroken to this day. He was the first of the breed of golf prodigies we continue to celebrate to this day and, the movie argues, perhaps the first professional golfer to become a celebrity. Therein lies the central conflict of Tommy’s Honour, the clash between Tommy’s ambitious social climbing and the more class-conscious traditions of his father, Old Tom (Peter Mullan), also a golfer.
If this sounds like a 19th century Scotland version of Varsity Blues, well, if only it possessed the same aspirations toward hoary trash as that movie. No, Tommy’s Honour is far too respectable and dignified to have any sort of fun, instead plodding dutifully from plot point to plot point. Here, Tommy offends the noble sensibilities of a local aristocrat (Sam Neill). Here, he falls in love with a woman of whom his family won’t approve. And here, he struggles to reconcile with the father he’s spent years defying.
So brazen is Connery in his flaunting of tropes that we begin to look on Tommy’s pride as a kind of Chekhov’s gun. When he boasts of his talent or flaunts his duties, it’s beyond foreshadowing. It’s the self-conscious setup that goeth before the fall. Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe, while far from perfect itself, at least handled this type of character development with more humanity and less ham.
At least when the long-awaited humbling comes, it finally breaks through with some real emotional impact. That’s mostly down to the contributions of Ophelia Lovibond, who plays Meg, the aforementioned forbidden woman whom Tommy eventually marries. Despite the talented cast that Connery has assembled, Lovibond is the only performer who manages to exhibit recognizable, tangible human characteristics, as opposed to being some sort of automated melodrama robot like everyone else. And yet, when it comes time to resolve the marriage storyline, Connery, along with screenwriters Pamela Marin and Kevin Cook, return once again to the only language they know, another stiff, boring depiction of golf. It’s a lovely game but has any movie ever captured it well?
Young Tom Morris is a figure of import but Tommy’s Honour fails to elucidate that because it fails to properly contextualize his story. With so little that’s real to grab onto, it’s impossible to feel immersed in the period setting. And, as such, any attempts to make the social mores and class protocols of the time relatable fall flat. It should be crushing, not funny, when Tommy’s mother curses Meg as a “Fornicatrix!” Instead, that one word drew guffaws in the screening room, the biggest reaction earned by anything in the whole movie.