Australia/ New Zealand
AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY: NOW, from ARROW VIDEO
RUNNING TIME: 90 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
It is the year 1348 and the Black Plague has engulfed two thirds of Europe. In Cumbria, England, a young boy named Griffin has a vision that the plague will pass the village over if the villagers make a pilgrimage to carry a cross to a city of lights and mount it on a cathedral before dawn rises. Led by Griffin’s visions, a group of miners headed by the adventurer Connor [whom Griffin idolises] tunnel down to the centre of the earth and emerge out into modern day Auckland, New Zealand….
I don’t really know why it’s taken so long for me to see the film which really made director Vincent Ward’s name, given that the romantic drama Map Of The Human Heart [even thinking about that film’s ending makes me want to cry] and the afterlife fantasy What Dreams May Come are distinct favourites of mine. Ward is a filmmaker who just doesn’t seem to want to make that many films, though sadly he’s still probably best known for wanting Alien 3 to be set on a plant made of wood. Watching The Navigator is like watching something recorded from the point of view of an alien who has landed on earth. Its two settings – 1348 Cumbria and 1988 Auckland – are evoked in such a vivid, offbeat fashion. Its basic plot may be a variant on others that have come before, but the handling is certainly highly original, and the result certainly isn’t visuals over everything else as the story, in part a very balanced exploration of faith in that it portrays it in both a positive and a negative light, also looks at things such as the power of stories, and how one cannot avoid a return to reality. I detected similar themes to many of Terry Gilliam’s films. I felt a slight wish around a third of the way through that the film hadn’t have left 1348, but thing soon revive and give us both a thrilling climax and an ironic, intelligent coda.
The idea for the film originated when Ward attempted to cross a German autobahn and became stranded in the middle, inspiring him to imagine what it would be like for a medieval person to find themselves in such a 20th-century situation. He was also inspired by a report about two Papua New Guinean tribesmen who briefly visited an Australian city, and the child’s myth of digging through the earth and coming out the other side. The original script was much more comedic and Ward intended to cast little people as the travellers. The colours of the film were based on medieval art and, in particular, artists’ ideas about heaven and hell, for example the blues in many of the modern-day sequences being based on the inks in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, possibly the most important illuminated manuscript of the 15th century. Some of the mining scenes were inspired by engravings from the German mining manual De re metallica, although it dates from two centuries after the time of those scenes. Ward later said he hadn’t achieved what he wanted to with the colour of the modern-day scenes due to the film’s short shooting schedule. In fact it was shut down after a week and then delayed for a year due to financing problems, leading to it becoming the first Australia/New Zealand co-production. It was shot in a range of New Zealand locations, including Auckland, Wellington, Mount Ruapehu and Lake Harris in the Southern Alps. Filming was extremely hard due to the elaborate nature of some of the shots, the remoteness of some of the locations, and Ward’s perfectionism. After seeing the film, Werner Herzog, known for extremely difficult shoots, was reported to have said that “it must have been hard to make”. The film wasn’t a major hit but was certainly a festival favourite.
A slightly wobbly close-up of our young hero opens things as he experiences his vision. Somebody falling from a very tall church spire, people throwing torches into a pit, POV running up stairs, some kind of mining machine – it’s obviously bits from the future, and in colour as opposed to the black and white of all the ‘actual’ Cumbria footage. And what black and white it is, Ward and cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson conjuring up magnificent painterly images while still giving us a seemingly authentic view of its primitive, bleak world. Some shots, like the incredibly haunting passing of black coffins down a river, would never have been as effective in colour. Young Griffin is convinced that his vision holds the key to saving the village from the deadly plague, but first has to get his idol Connor to agree to it. He’s away on some mysterious journey, but eventually returns while a Celtic song cries: “Connor, Connor” in one of the film’s less well put together musical moments. He’s seen death everywhere, so off to the mine it is and a fabulous set piece where you can almost smell things, it’s so well done. Here we get colour visions or flash-forwards,until we stay flash-forwarded, in a variation on the similar device in The Wizard Of Oz. It reminds me of when [showing my age here] I watched a colour TV for the first time. It takes a few seconds for our eyes to adjust to the colour of the brave new world our group finds itself in, and this gives the viewer an impression of how odd it must seem to them – though in a particularly nice touch they never actually figure out they’re in the future.
As the skyscrapers of Auckland loom up in front of them, simple old Ulf is almost killed several times while crossing a road, and winds up separated from the others who consider whether they should leave him there. Rather than go for the expected laughs, Ward goes for genuine fear and then sadness as Ulf, a character we really like, is left on his own. For a while we get the kind of encounters with the madness of the modern world we expect, except that humour, while still usually present, is minimised. When Griffin sees multiple TVs in a shop window, they play an advertisement for Aids [another deadly plague in 1988] replete with a grim reaper, and Griffin and us are instantly reminded of the danger that the village is in and the urgency of the mission, a mission which is beset with all sorts of problems, be it Connor suddenly knocking Griffin to the ground so he cuts his hand on some broken glass [nasty moment this due to its unexpectedness, though don’t worry Griffin still loves Connor], or a submarine which to our travellers is a sea monster. What a submarine is doing surfacing in Auckland Harbour is anybody’s guess, while the way a group of factory workers help our heroes with little persuasion is also unbelievable, but then this is a kind of fable, so I probably shouldn’t ask too many of those sorts of questions. The seeming fact that one of this group will die brings some urgency, and the climax is very well staged considering the budget. And then there’s a sobering coda which questions the value of the group’s journey and even adds a twist concerning one character – and it’s one of those twists that deepens the tale rather than it just being a twist for the sake of it.
I did get a sense of the story not doing all it could with its premise around the middle of the film, but then Ward did have a very small budget to work with, while our group is out to do one thing and one thing only. They don’t seem very curious about the wonders of our age, but that’s possibly deliberate to show the ignorance of people on foolhardy religious missions – though I reckon one could probably apply a heavily Christian reading to the film too, it seems to be so rich with metaphors and differing interpretations. In any case, I can’t imagine that a possible major flaw like that was intentional in a film in which – for example – all the cast members except for a few New Zealanders speak with Cumbrian accents, which shows that Ward understands, even in a fantasy, that certain elements have to feel as real as possible for the viewer to get fully involved. And aside from their lack of curiosity, the characters really do seem to behave like medieval characters, and are developed just enough throughout without it seeming false. The determination of little Connor is really quite uplifting, but a bit of me wishes he had some contrasting mentors to try to steer him in a different direction – though of course then the depiction of how stories can help people cope with the worst horrors possible [and more so back then as they didn’t really have anything else] might have been muddied. Like Steven Spielberg, Ward is a director able to get excellent performances out of children, and Hamish MacFarlane is just brilliant as Connor, totally un-cute yet somehow very vulnerable.
And yet one can enjoy [or indeed study] The Navigator just as a showcase for stunning photography, with every other shot consisting of incredible combinations of light and darkness. Our characters wind up in 1988, and it feels as if the cameraman has also come from the past and is astonished by everything he sees judging by how striking things look, for example a single shot showing a chase down a street. Meanwhile Davood A. Tabrizi’s diverse score occasionally sounds a bit Monty Python-ish with its sudden chorale chants and library-sounding music, but as many musical moments do work very well. The way sounds of 20th century machinery and such are slightly heightened is also a nice touch. It probably all sounds very arty, and I guess it is – yet oddly I think that some kids may get quite a lot out of Ward’s hymn to the value to storytelling and sobering look at the pluses and minuses of ‘escape’, and how the finding of truth may not actually do you any good at all. If you’re a thinking sort, you may find it all rather spiritual. And if you’re not – well, just enjoy things like the last shot which is probably the most beautiful shot of rippling water you’ll ever see.
The Navigator comes to both Region ‘A’ and Region ‘B’ Blu-ray in a seemingly very authentic looking restoration. The black and white scenes do contain a lot of grain, but it’s evenly managed while the colour inserts pop out incredibly. Once we reach Auckland the level of detail gives many releases of modern films a run for their money and really show how incredible the cinematography is.
Arrow haven’t crammed this one with special features, and I’d love a Ward commentary – though he probably doesn’t want to explain too much and I can understand that [oh how I regret ever listening to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s audio commentaries, it ruined much of the magic of films I had my own interpretations of]. The nine-minute look at the film is short but covers the basics with some good extra stuff on the financing problems – though when Nick Roddick mentions Ward’s later work he misses his last two movies! Curiously he thinks the Cumbria section goes on for too long. I wish it was longer! Kaleidoscope: Vincent Ward Film Maker is a 1989 half hour documentary profile of the director made for New Zealand TV just as The Navigator was coming out. There are interviews with some of the actors and writers who have worked with him, plus a visit to his parent’s farmhouse.
As you will have no doubt realised, The Navigator is not for all tastes, but I think it will reward the curious unless you really do insist of loads of action and special effects in your time travel stories. You may have seen similar story elements, but visually and in the way the story is handled you probably won’t have seen anything like it, and there’s plenty of food for thought too. Arrow’s Blu-ray not not be one of their more stacked efforts but the film looks incredible. Highly Recommended.
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
*High Definition (Blu-ray) presentation
*Original mono audio (uncompressed LPCM
*Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
*Brand-new appreciation by film critic Nick Roddick, recorded exclusively for this release
*Kaleidoscope: Vincent Ward – Film Maker, a 1989 documentary profile of the director made for New Zealand television
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Kim Newman and an introduction by Vincent Ward