The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey Review

A group of medieval peasants is digging through to the bottom of the Earth with an odd contraption. Dust bursts into the air as the men shout to each other and the machine cracks the ground. There is a young boy with them. Suddenly a high pitched sting pierces the sounds of screaming and thumping as the men look to the moon high above them, through tunnels and caverns, to see a billowing skeleton blowing a trumpet cross the glowing surface. This striking visual image perfectly sets the tone and feel of Vincent Ward's The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey.

The village is not safe, as refugees from towns infected with the plague start coming on ships. In a bid to protect their settlement Connor, Griffin, and four other men must travel to a great church at the far side of the Earth to erect a spire and gain God’s grace and protection from death. Little do they know, however, that they are not only tunnelling to the far side of the Earth, but also into New Zealand in the 1980s, more than 600 years into the future.

The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey is the second feature from New Zealand director Vincent Ward, after his 1984 film Vigil. Ward said the inspiration for the film came during his travels to Germany and Europe, while trying to cross the autobahn on foot. He then thought about how a person from the 14th century would react to cars and eight-lane motorways. That is what The Navigator is, a fish out of water story, where the medieval common folk travel to a distant land full of technology that might as well be magic. What is remarkable is that Ward can take items that we know already, like TVs, modern smelting methods, trains, cars and submarines and turn them into the unfamiliar. A train becomes a giant serpent running through the world at high speed, gobbling up unsuspecting people, a sub is the Leviathan itself, rising out of the deep a dark monstrosity, while television is the box of the devil himself, playing tricks on the minds of all those who gaze upon it.

The fear and wonder the characters experience at seeing all of these technological advances is sold by the tremendous performances from the actors in the film. Bruce Lyons, Chris Haywood and Marshall Napier (who play Conner, Searle and Arno respectively) are all veteran stage actors who turn in believable reactions as peasants from the 1300s seeing submarines for the first time, and accidentally hopping on the front of a train. Paul Livingstone (fleshing out Martin) is better known as a comedy actor with his stage persona Flacco, however, he is able to sell the more involved and tense sequences, namely when Connor find himself hanging off the side of a church. Finally, we come to fantastic child actor Hamish McFarlane in the role of Griffin, carrying the movie as the main character and reacting convincingly to the situation he finds himself in. The accents are a little goofy and the delivery is either in a whisper or a yell, but thankfully this is not a dialogue-heavy movie.

There is something Gilliamesque about the film, and not because initially it was set to star dwarfs in this comic time-based adventure, it is in the texture of the film, the colour and the look of it. However, within this magical, dreamlike story there is pointed commentary about the modern world, concerning Nuclear power and global politics. Both the medieval world and the New Zealand government are trying to hold back powers more significant than themselves, whether it be the plague or the nuclear powered United States and Soviet Union.

All of this magical realism is perfectly blended to create a film that is unique. I could list the number of awards it has won and been nominated for: the Palme d'Or at Canne, Best Film at Fantafestival in Rome as well as the same award at Fantasporto in Portugal, the Spanish Cinema Fantastic and the International Festival of Fantasy Films in Munich, not to mention the fact that it swept the Australian Film Institute Awards and the New Zealand Film and Television Awards. Of course there are some weaknesses, the slightly fantastic nature of the film may leave audiences feel a little cold and confused especially following the conclusion, but the acting, design and feel of the film make The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey a thought-provoking dark fantasy and a completely unique cinematic experience.

Arrow Video is in charge of the distribution of The Navigator. They present the film with a high definition video, but keep that analogue film grain feel, especially for the black and white plague sections of the film that are reminiscent of The Passion of Joan of Arc or Twelve Monkeys. That coupled with the uncompressed LPCM mono audio track make this a high-quality transfer.

Alongside the excellently remastered film, Arrow has included the film’s trailer and an archive documentary from New Zealand TV introducing audiences to the director. While more exclusively there is also an "appreciation" by critic Nick Roddick. This is a little rambling and tends to discuss Ward's overall career rather than The Navigator specifically yet is still a great addition to the disc. The extras are rounded off with writing by Kim Newman and an introduction to the booklet by Vincent Ward himself - this is only available in the first pressing, so be sure to pick it up.

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The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey is a unique film, a dreamlike dark fantasy, full of meaning and visual flair


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