Tommy’s Honour and a century and a half of malpractice
Muirfield fraternity in the spotlight as film release points to changing times
HETHER by accident or design the themes which permeate the work that launched this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival could hardly be more prescient as Scottish golf clubs seek to address a century and a half of malpractice.
Wednesday evening’s premiere of Tommy’s Honour was a grand affair at the capital’s Festival Theatre and its merits as a movie will be examined by those better qualified to do so.
It is, in essence, a love story and to those who have visited St Rule’s Cemetery, as my family did even before I knew there were golf courses in St Andrews, its basic elements are well known, while for those who do not know it any further description would represent something of a plot spoiler.
Just as there was when The Herald gained exclusive access last year to St Andrews University’s discovery of the only known photograph of the younger Tom Morris (who dominated the early competitive golf scene in the mid-to-late 19th century) swinging a club on the links, there will be those who seek to question aspects of the film’s authenticity.
Just as historians at the university explained that it would have been necessary for Tommy to hold a pose that varied from his normal swing in order to accommodate the lengthy exposure required by photographers of the 1870s, so quibbling about the softening of north east Fife accents in order to engage the widest possible audience is far less relevant than the behaviour of the main characters and what that seeks to tell us.
Admittedly there has to be a suspicion that if Tommy’s mother was able to defend herself she might take exception to the representation of her severity as, if memory serves, Jennie Liddell, the sister of Eric, did when that other great promotional tool for the Auld Grey Toon, Chariots of Fire, became a worldwide success the best part of 40 years ago.
The unlikely nature of such a high percentage of the shots that had to be negotiated and which resulted in miracle recoveries that would have been beyond Seve Ballesteros or Phil Mickelson even with the best of modern equipment can meanwhile be excused as a filmic device, but while there is also a cartoonish element in the portrayal of the behaviour of those who carried influence in the sport and society at the time, caricature is, of course, simply a case of accentuating existing characteristics.
What makes the snobbery and pomposity that Sam Neill exemplifies as captain of the R&A all the more telling is that the film is directed by a man who is the son of the R&A’s most famous member, Sean Connery, who also achieved what he has from humble beginnings as a former milkman who was himself the son of a factory worker and a cleaner and, curiously, was widely known as Tommy, then Big Tam, in his younger days.
Jason Connery, son of Sean, depicts the R&A as an appalling group of grasping upper-middle class chancers who mistake such irrelevances as accents and dress codes for marks of true gentility.
The sneering, cheating golfers of East Lothian also get harsh treatment, which makes the decision to choose the word “honour” in the film’s title seem very deliberate. At a time when the attitudes that continue to afflict the area’s most famous club at Muirfield course (that was, ironically, designed by Tommy’s father ‘Old Tom’ – played in the film by the wonderful Peter Mullan, mustering every ounce of gruffness and poignancy in his formidable armoury) are being examined in ways they should have been many years ago.
The contrast with, for all their inter-generational friction, the dignity and integrity the Morrises are seen to represent is doubtless exaggerated and possibly unfair, just as it is wrong to think that the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers’ bungling of their vote on whether to allow women to
MOMENT IN TIME: The unique photograph discovered last year of Young Tom Morris on the links at St Andrews. PREMIER PALS: Jack Lowden (left) and Peter Mullan attend the world premiere of Tommy’s Honour, at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh. Picture: PA