The Navigators Review
To state that The Navigators resembles one of Ken Loach’s television works is not meant to denigrate its qualities in any way. This is a director after all who affected a change in the law with 1966’s Cathy Come Home and had two pieces, Questions of Leadership and Which Side Are You On? (for The South Bank Show) languish in limbo as their respective commissioners refused to broadcast their contentious political views. Indeed, The Navigators is as angry as any of these works, and just as powerful. It’s also Loach’s first cinematic work in some time to deal with a specifically British problem, his most overtly political films of late having dealt with the rights of immigrant cleaners in the US (Bread and Roses), the Spanish Civil War (Land and Freedom), Nicaragua of the late eighties (Carla’s Song) and the Chilean coup that led General Pinochet to power (his segment for the 11’09”01 anthology). That said, it is also a deceptively simple work, its focus on five workers affected by the privatisation of Railtrack being indicative of a much broader, bleaker picture.
This simplicity is also indicative of Loach’s shooting style, something that has rarely changed in either his televisual or cinematic work. The formative influences of the Italian neo-realists of the forties and the 1960s Czech new wave remain just as powerful and as such The Navigators sticks to the director’s tried and tested patterns. The key, as always, is observation; Loach is happy just to sit back and be as unfussy as possible, whilst eschewing anything that may draw too much attention to itself. Even close-ups are a rarity, although, as was the case with 1991’s Riff-Raff, this is very much an ensemble piece focusing on a small group of men and as such this lack seems odd or incongruous.
Of course, Loach’s invisibility is integral in allowing the actors and, more importantly, the script to speak for themselves. The assortment of professionals and non-professional faces from the northern comedy circuits alike proves especially successful in producing a tangible human element to the drama, most notably during those moments outside of the workplace. (It helps, of course, that no big names are present, though some faces may be familiar from smaller film and TV roles.) Aiding this is screenwriter Rob Dawber’s ear for banter, one which correctly identifies the humour despite (or perhaps because of) the humour. Indeed, without a grandstanding performance within the film itself, Dawber can be seen as the star of The Navigators. Basing much of his script on his experiences of working of the railways, the passion and anger of his reaction to privatisation impels the narrative to its sadly inevitable conclusion and makes the viewing experience a powerful one.
His strengths are in highlighting the absurdities of the situation (the men are made to destroy perfectly equipment and are requested to “keep deaths to an acceptable level”),in doing so gradually building his protagonists frustrations, and in creating a horribly venal character in the form of managing director, Will Hemmings. The actor who plays him, Nigel Harrison, only appears in two scenes (and, indeed, his name only appears right at the very end of the credits), yet his occasional lines of dialogue - a combination of impenetrable business-speak (“partnership of progress”) and sheer ruthlessness (“anyone who stands in the way is out” is his reaction to the union men, or “trouble-makers” as he calls them) - produce a terrifying, and all too real, creation. Some may complain that the characterisation is too blunt and two-dimensional, yet this is necessary for the satire to work, and Harrison does embody the role perfectly. Moreover, when dealing with a filmmaker as impassioned as Loach, not to mention a writer such as Dawber (as we learn in the accompanying documentary), especially when he is producing a work that ranks amongst his best, such minor quibbles can be easily set aside.
Unsurprisingly for a recently produced feature, The Navigators looks and sounds fine on disc. The original 1.85:1 ratio is presented anamorphically and without any surface damage or blemishes. Likewise, the sound retains the intended stereo and similarly remains crisp throughout.
Further impetus for purchasing the disc is provided by an excellent array of special features. The first, a BBC documentary on screenwriter Rob Dawber entitled Railing Against It, is a bizarre one-off: an emotionally engaging making-of. Following the ex-rail worker over a period of two years, this short piece (28 minutes) is as concerned with Dawber’s cancer - which would eventually kill him - as it is with The Navigators. As such we are privy to interviews with both cast and crew members plus Dawber’s family, as well as being able to eavesdrop on such events as Dawber’s successful court case against British Rail (the caught the illness through exposure to asbestos whilst on the job) and his powerful, candid video diaries. The only complaint is the incongruously chirpy voice-over by Rony [sic] Robinson.
Equally of interest is the fascinating short film, Making Tracks. Produced by British Transport Films (collections of whose work is currently available on VHS from the BFI with DVD releases intended for the future), this 16-mintue piece returns the viewer to simpler times when rail work was done safely, efficiently and without interruption. The contrast to the events in The Navigators is, of course, startling, and that's very much the point. The quaintness of the voice-over, incidentally, only adds to the curiosity factor.
Elsewhere, the discs offers 19 deleted/alternate scenes (lasting 24 minutes) with an optional commentary by editor Jonathan Morris. None of these are truly essential viewing, though Morris’ brief chat does provide some insight into Loach’s working methods. The disc also treats Loach to some lengthy biographical notes, and there is also a link to the BFI’s website for those with DVD-ROM capabilities.
All of the special features, as with the main feature, come with optional English subtitles.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 10:25:33