“There’s only one story you’ll get out of me,” says the bearded old man to the reporter. The reporter is there to talk about the legendary Tommy Morris, a champion golfer in his youth. But the older man, who frames the ensuing story but does not actually narrate it, is the reason Morris was referred to as Young Tommy: He’s Tommy’s father, also named Tom Morris (Peter Mullan), commonly known as Old Tom. Old Tom founded the Open Championship in 1860 and won several of them, but playing golf on its own doesn’t rate as a career in 19th-century Scotland. As Tommy’s Honour opens, Old Tom works at a golf club, offering lessons and equipment, teaching his children the trade.
Early on, it becomes clear that Young Tommy (Jack Lowden) may be even better at the family sport. He’s also clearly less inclined to craft golf clubs, tend to grounds, and caddy for a living. The two Toms have golf in common, but different levels of ambition. Old Tom doesn’t think he can move beyond his station, while Young Tommy is dedicated to makin’ his own way, as he emphatically insists in one scene. At least one of the filmmakers might know a thing or two about sharing a vocation with an accomplished Scottish dad: The director is Jason Connery, son of Sean. (He was released the same year as From Russia With Love.)
In real life, Young Tommy was even younger than he looks in Tommy’s Honour. Technically, Lowden the actor spends the entire movie older than his character ever was, and he looks too much like some familiar adult actors—a bit like Michael Sheen, with dashes of Simon Pegg and later-period David Spade—to effectively pass for a teenager. Casting an adult even when the character starts out as a minor isn’t an uncommon concession to make, but this decision does make the father-son material feel a bit less intimate and more overwrought, even when Connery keeps the tone relatively hushed. It’s the difference between character study and ungainly biopic.
The movie may not go full-on biopic, but it has the timing of one: Its first half takes place over the course of nearly a decade, while the second half covers a little over a year. With the characters’ lack of visible aging, none of this would be especially clear if not for a few cutaways to early photographs dating a series of golfing wins. Given that imbalance, the pacing is remarkably even. It’s also not especially urgent. Despite its scope, the filmmaking doesn’t evoke the weight of time’s passage, just the story’s gentle pokiness.
Along the way, the movie doesn’t make good on Old Tom’s promise to tell one particular golf story. Sometimes it loses sight of its Tom-versus-Tommy conflict—they clash personally but often hit the course together—in favor of telling bits of a love story, a class-warfare golf story, and a history lesson. Around the midpoint, there’s a particularly ginned-up struggle between Tommy’s girlfriend, Meg (Ophelia Lovibond), and Tommy’s mother, Nancy (Therese Bradley), who has barely registered as a character before her subplot kicks in and she’s referring to poor Meg (who is significantly older than Tommy but, again, doesn’t seem it) as a “fornicatrix.” The movie also casts Sam Neill, but for his role as a golf club elder, it only asks him to glower in a top hat—not an unwelcome sight, but a disappointing use of a good actor in a stock part.
None of this is outright terrible, though it’s not all smooth sailing behind the camera either. Connery utilizes some jarring, sudden close-ups of Mullan early on that feel like awkward lunges toward emotional intensity. He does better in a less fraught moment, making a neat, seamless cut between Tommy and Meg entering a shop and leaving seconds later with a new dress. Their relationship is sweet, if not especially detailed. That’s true of much of Tommy’s Honour, which passes by in a blur of attractively overcast Scottish landscapes and brownish period costumes. It doesn’t have the kind of personality that enlivens the best films about golf, a fairly uncinematic sport that has lent itself to a surprising number of decent movies. What this one offers in abundance is facts about golf in its early days. How the movie escaped a Father’s Day release in the U.S. is a mystery.