Eyes half-closed look at yesteryear

The Legend of Bagger Vance

Director Robert Redford has created a cinematic oil painting with The Legend of Bagger Vance. Reminiscent of Redford’s previous film The Horse Whisperer in terms of style – and unfortunately, vacuous content – the lush film attempts to portray an inspirational if obvious message that transcends golf: that every person has an authentic swing to find.

It’s a simple message to convey, but perhaps too fortune-cookie like for a feature-length film. The film is an adaptation of Steven Pressfield’s novel The Legend of Bagger Vance, a novel centring on Hindu spiritual thought (Bagger Vance represented the Baghavad Gita). It was always going to be an ambitious step to translate the spiritual book onto the screen, and the results of Redford’s efforts are disappointingly questionable.

For the message itself may be timeless, but the method of telling it in 2001 shows a Hollywood mindset still stuck in Savannah, Georgia 1931, the place and year in which most of the film is set.

The film is narrated by Hardy Greaves (Jack Lemmon as an adult, J Michael Moncrief as a child), who is just eight years old when Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon) returns from World War I, a spiritually-broken man who was once the star golf-player of the South, but is now more likely to be found drinking and gambling with the town’s blacks – now there’s a downfall! – than swinging a club on any green.

He left behind girlfriend Adele (Charlize Theron), to whom he did not even correspond with while away and has not sought out since his quiet return. But in his absence, Adele’s father has committed suicide and she has sought to fulfill his dream of having the best golf course in the south. When his creditors appear likely to thwart that dream, she responds by organising a golf tournament with $10,000 between Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill).

The local townspeople demand that a local be included in the match, and young Hardy suggests Junuh, whom he has idolised from an even younger age. Hardy races off to find and ask him, closely followed by various townsfolk and Adele, but he is not persuaded. That’s until the mysterious Bagger Vance (Will Smith) turns up delivering homespun truths while Junuh is out practising his swing.

Even putting aside the problematic stereotype of black Americans existing to enlighten less spiritual whites (even if they might be an angel – we must assume Bagger Vance is one, as little else about him is deemed worth explaining), the film embraces an era of racism without questioning it directly or indirectly. And Adele, although feisty and strong-willed, eventually crumbles into Junuh’s arms despite there being little shown in the characters of either to suggest why they should be attracted to the other.

While performances are as solid as the light script allows – even Will Smith is believable as somebody serious – it’s the young J Michael Moncrief who really steals the show with an earnest portrayal of Hardy Greaves.

This tale of redemption seems to lack real challenge and truly thoughtful wisdom. Junuh is hardly shown to be in true crisis, particularly compared to Savannah’s black population at the time, of whom few are seen, and the lines of advice offered might give audiences a warm and fuzzy feeling, but they’re nothing one doesn’t read in a basic self-help book. The lack of sophistication in the story is not reflected, however, in the fine cinematography that still makes this a very watchable, if soon-to-be-forgotten, film.

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