Kicking off the Edinburgh International Film Festival this year – or should that be teeing off? – is Tommy’s Honour, the story of Tom Morris and his son Tommy, who together helped golf evolve into the game we know today. The focus on a story of Scottish innovation feels apt as a curtain-raiser for an historic edition of the festival, which turns seventy this year.
Set in St Andrews in the 1860s and 70s, the film charts the brief but innovative golfing career of Tommy Morris Jr (Jack Lowden), who won the Open Championship as a seventeen-year-old and preceded to win it a further three times in a row. As the film opens, Tommy’s life seems to be mapped out in front of him: follow in the footsteps of his father Tom (Peter Mullan), the greenkeeper and golf pro of St Andrews who spends his days teaching and caddying for the upper-class gentlemen of the club.
Young Tommy’s story isn’t particularly well known, outside of golfing circles anyway, so from that point of view the film is fairly interesting. We see him slowly revolutionise not only the way the game is played – he appears to discover backspin – but also the way the professional side of the game works. From changing the way players are payed, to introducing the idea of touring and generally raising the profile of the game, Tommy essentially paved the way for the modern golf professional.
However, the way the story is told is very straightforward and follows the typical beats of a biopic, following Tommy’s rise, the romance with his wife Meg (Ophelia Lovibond) and the eventual tragedy that marked the end of his career. Along the way there are scenes of personal drama interspersed throughout the golfing scenes and although there’s some conflict when Meg arrives on the scene, tensions never rise particularly high. Director Jason Connery keeps the film moving along at a steady pace and it is involving throughout but never entirely enthralling, with the main emotional thrust coming via the father/son relationship.
Though his father was a successful golfer in his own right, winning four Open Championships of his own, Tommy looks down on his father’s life of servitude and sees something better for himself. He has bigger aspirations than cow-towing to the likes of Alexander Boothby (Sam Neil) and the other upper-class members of the club. This leads to tension between the pair as Tommy is forced to curtail plans to go be a pro in London for a considerable salary out of duty to his father, who in turn bristles at Tommy’s showmanship and perceived lack of respect. Both Lowden, in his first lead role, and Mullan give strong performances, imbuing their characters with swagger and dignity respectively. Mullan does much of the film’s emotional heavy-lifting and he is more than capable of carrying that weight in a quiet, subtly moving performance.
There isn’t all that much wrong with Tommy’s Honour and a lot to like, from the winning performances to the beautiful, well-shot Scottish locations, but ultimately it all seems a little too gentle and predictable. As an informative run through of an important but lesser known sporting life, it’s a good overview of Tommy Morris’ life but beyond that, it never quite rises above moderately engaging.