For all our recent success in the league tables, one area where St Andrews is lagging shamefully behind is the movies. Although the University faculties and surrounding area have served as shooting locations for several notable films – most famously, East Sands features in Chariots of Fire, while the moody, understated sci-fi drama Never Let Me Go made use of Andrew Melville Hall – films explicitly set in and centred on St Andrews are all but non-existent. It’s never quite caught on as a setting for the classic British class-clash comedy drama in the way that Oxford and Cambridge have, nor have any of its students’ exploits yet been deemed worthy of the Social Network treatment (although Aaron Sorkin could probably script a great drama about the Union elections), while most Scottish cinema tends to stay further north – no St Andrews location has received a depiction as central to Scottish popular culture as the opening run down Prince’s Street in Trainspotting. In fact, the most notable St Andrews representation in recent mainstream cinema is probably a one-liner in the first Kingsman (I’d say to watch it again if you don’t recall, but we all know the church scene is the only part of that film worth rewatching).
This is what makes 2017’s Tommy’s Honour such a novelty – it’s a film set in and explicitly about the history of St Andrews. And perhaps inevitably, it’s all about golf: specifically, the reinvention and popularisation of the game by St Andrews golfer Tommy Morris, played here by Jack Lowden of Dunkirk fame. The film follows this talented young man’s rise to fame and fortune, as well as his relationships with his father, wizened fellow golfer Tommy Morris (Peter Mullan), and his eventual wife, the lower-class Meg Drinnen (Ophelia Lovibond). Directed by Jason Connery, the film is handsomely mounted if perfunctory Sunday night fayre, with Connery and director of photography Gary Shaw providing some lush images of St Andrews locales. Lowden brings a convincing earnestness to the lead role, and one of the better Scottish accents we’ve heard an English actor of late, while Mullan and Sam Neill (as Alexander Boothby, the elitist Captain of The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews) lend the piece heft with their customary gravitas – even if they could probably do their respective salt-of-the-earth gruffness and moustache-twirling in their sleeps by now.
The material focussed on the relationship between golf and class, and how Morris challenges that, is strong, and it is to the film’s betterment that it highlights these aspects over the technicalities of the game – the father-son drama, though played with conviction by Lowden in Mullan, is less successful until towards the conclusion. Overall, though, Tommy’s Honour offers little we haven’t seen done elsewhere, and often executed better. As with most British period dramas dealing with the conflict between progress and conservatism, the film deals in broad, cartoonish stereotypes designed to comfortably situate the viewer on the right side of history, and offers an uncomplicated triumph of the underdog ending which rings hollow. And as competent as the execution is, the class conflict and forbidden love threads are deeply familiar, and their presentation here offers little to detract from their roteness. Tommy’s Honour is fine period drama comfort food, then – but the search for a truly great St Andrews film goes on.