Legend of Bagger Vance, The

The Legend of Bagger Vance (PG)

SOME movies sound plain awful on paper, and this – a 1920s period drama about a washed-up golfing prodigy and his mystical golf caddy (!) – must rank with the best of ’em.

Yet there is something inherently magical about the atmosphere and performances in The Legend of Bagger Vance which, coupled with the seductive, lilting feel of the story and the smooth, unobtrusive direction by Robert Redford, make this one to watch over and over.

Matt Damon is Rannulph Junuh, a fabulously popular and prodigiously talented golfing ace who, in the years before World War One, won everything in which he participated.

But with war came disillusionment, darkness and terrors brought home from the fields of Flanders. When Junuh returns to his hometown of Savannah, Georgia, he is a broken man. He shuns his former friends, his lover Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron, rapidly revealing herself to be an actress of style and versatility) and the game of which he was once king.

With the country in the grip of the Great Depression, Adele faces losing her father’s vision – his golf course. Fiercely determined to hold onto it, she enlists the help of the country’s two greatest golfers for the biggest match the state has ever seen, and starts work on coaxing former golden boy Junuh out of drunken, self-pitying retirement.

She reckons without the figure of Bagger Vance (Will Smith), a young black man who walks out of the dark one night to become Junuh’s staunchest ally, confidant and golf caddy. Suddenly, Junuh is sober, focused and back on form. It’s as if something has resurrected his spirit.

The Legend of Bagger Vance, based on the novel by Steven Pressfield, is an uplifting story of redemption in the mode of It’s a Beautiful Life. From the outset Smith’s ever-smiling, calm and capable Bagger is offered up as an angelic figure – a mythological character, part wise sage, part soulful survivor, who gently steers his charge on the right track.

It’s a measure of Redford’s controlled direction that the film never becomes leaden, mawkish or laughable. Instead, it emerges as a telling portrait of a lost, almost Waltons-style period when courtesy was king and people respected one another.

It is told via narration by an aged Hardy Graves (played in the film by 12-year-old J. Michael Moncrieff), given voice by an uncredited Jack Lemmon as he drags his golf cart along the links and reminisces of days long past. The opening and closing sections of the film boast sumptuous cinematography  by Michael Ballhaus, but these are just two moments in a film which, like many of Redford’s pictures, revel in the look and beauty of America.

Damon, Theron and Smith all give solid performances, though Damon stands out as the young man who brings back to his town what it had lost when he dropped out of its community: a sense of pride in excellence, achievement and goodness.

Smith gets most of the film’s funny lines, but these are subtle and ironic, not the belly-laugh comedy for which he is best known.

Like A River Runs Through It, The Legend of Bagger Vance celebrates the beauty of America, lazy, golden summer days, and the values of a time that is past. It is an unusual film, and not one which, I venture, will make any significant dent at the box office. Nevertheless, it is an enjoyable and finely crafted movie for which one comment must be shouted from the rooftops: it’s not really about golf at all.

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