The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey Review
After reading a review of Vincent Ward’s The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey in an issue of Interzone back in 1989, I was sufficiently intrigued by the premise and the striking visual aspect of the film from the accompanying photographs to seek it out, and fortunate enough to find the film showing in a small Dublin cinema. I emerged from the screening having been held spellbound for 90 minutes and proceeded to tell everyone I knew about the most extraordinary film I had ever seen – a film shot in stark black and white, set in a small mining village in the mid-14th century, where a group of villagers, fearful of the Black Death that is ravaging neighbouring towns, undertake a pilgrimage by digging a tunnel through to the other side of the earth, only to come up, in blazing colour, in modern day New Zealand. Who, I wondered, could ever conceive of such a story in such an inconceivable time period (specifically March 1348 no less)? Well, the answer to that question became quite clear later after I caught up with Andrei Tarkovsky and Ingmar Bergman, and that is someone who has studied Andrei Rublev and The Seventh Seal very carefully.
Discovering that The Navigator has been heavily influenced by two of the greatest films ever made was a little bit disappointing, but it doesn’t take away that much from how good and unlike anything else the film still remains. It opens very bravely and ambitiously with a four-minute dream/vision sequence, cutting between high-contrast grainy black and white images and vivid colour, showing a bunch of hooded medieval characters who we haven’t yet been introduced to, in a surreal montage of images of fire, water, earth and rushing winds – all of them seeming to presage a dark and violent death. What we are seeing is a vision witnessed by Griffin (Hamish McFarlane), a young boy living in a small mining community in Cumbria in the mid-14th century, who is prone to falling into trances that give him premonitory glimpses of the future. The images he has seen do not bode well for the village which, because of its isolated location, has so far been spared the worst ravages of the Plague which is devastating the land.
One of the villagers who has journeyed out beyond the community, Connor (Bruce Lyons), returns to confirm their worst fears - The Black Death has a grip on the country and is claiming young and old, priests and sinners indiscriminately. The remote location of the village and their attempts to keep strangers and refugees out will not be enough to keep the epidemic at bay for long. Connor reckons that they have maybe a month, no more – just enough time for them to make an offering by casting a spike of Cumbrian copper and undertaking a pilgrimage to a great cathedral in the hope that the village might be spared the Black Death. Griffin’s premonitory visions seem to confirm this belief, and that by tunnelling further down one of the deepest mine shafts, they will be able to get to the cathedral in the celestial city on the other side of the earth. A small group of men set off on this important pilgrimage and, incredibly, emerge on the other side of the world into a modern-day Antipodean city. Navigating the dangers of 20th century technology, they must seek out a foundry to cast the spike for a cross they will mount on the cathedral in Griffin’s dream. However, as they progress, the boy’s visions become clearer and their message predicts a fatal fall by one of their number.
Split between the 14th and 20th centuries and being filmed alternately in black & white and colour, you would expect The Navigator to be wildly inconsistent in tone, but it actually handles the time shifts and culture shock with remarkable equanimity. The world that the medieval pilgrims encounter on their arrival in modern-day New Zealand is actually consistent with or representative of the no less terrifying and unknown horrors they imagine the Plague inflicting on the little-known world outside their village. Rather than play the pilgrims’ encounters with modern technology for laughs, the film instead maintains the sense of wonder of the world by seeing it through their eyes. For these characters, crossing a four-lane road with loud enormous beasts bearing down on them at inconceivable speeds is a huge and perilous adventure. With good characterisation defining each one of the characters with a strong and individual personality and giving them a fervent belief and determination to carry out their mission – the lives of everyone they know depends on it – the film maintains a taut and suspenseful journey of the pilgrims through this strange world. Consequently there are many extraordinary and quite memorable scenes such as Connor’s encounter with a rail shuttle and Griffin’s mystical experience with rows of televisions in a shop window display, each of them playing out ominous natural history footage of a bird of prey swooping down on a rabbit and a morbid AIDS information announcement.
Much of the setting and imagery of The Navigator owes a lot to Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, in its evocation of religious devotion in the middle-ages, particularly drawing a lot from one particular section that dealt with the casting of a bell for the cathedral in a great city, while the whole idea of making a pilgrimage as death walks the land recalls certain scenes of hooded religious devotees in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal - both directors who were clearly influential to Vincent Ward from his earliest work on Vigil (1984). Ward’s films often involve characters in remote locations who have a spiritual connection with their surroundings, a theme which remain remarkably consistent throughout his brief filmography - Vigil (1984), The Navigator (1988), Map Of The Human Heart (1993), What Dreams May Come (1998) and his about to be released new film River Queen (2005). While this subject matter is undoubtedly informed by his own upbringing in New Zealand, Tarkovsky is the obvious reference for a filmmaker dealing with this kind of material. That influence is less evident in the director’s later films, as Ward would find other ways to present the material and make it more accessible to a wider audience outside of the arthouse market. Each of those films however retains a tremendously imaginative and visionary quality, although some might find that they increasingly skirt the boundary of sentimentality a little too closely (particularly with the casting of Robin Williams in What Dreams May Come). Consequently, The Navigator perhaps remains the director’s purest and most visually delightful film.
The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey is released in Australia by Madman. The film, with extensive extra features, is presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format and is not region encoded. This edition can be purchased from EzyDVD.com.
If there are any flaws in the video transfer of the film, I don’t see them. The black & white scenes show remarkable contrast, depth and detail, with solid blacks and not a hint of flicker in the image. Colour scenes are equally well presented showing detail and textures in a gritty grain that nevertheless allows for a perfectly sharp image. There is not a mark or dustspot on the image, and in a film that takes place almost entirely in the dark, these would be quite noticeable if they existed. The film is transferred at a ratio of 1.78:1, but the difference between that and the original 1.85:1 ratio would be negligible.
The audio is fine and clear with no distortion or background noise. It’s at a fairly low level however and I had to raise the volume much higher than usual to get the sufficient amplification.
The film is English language and there are no hard of hearing subtitles.
Lacking the substantial extra features on the Madman Vigil DVD release, The Navigator only comes with a Photo Gallery of 7 full-screen 16:9 colour and black & white images from the film, and a Vincent Ward Trailer Reel for the Madman releases of Vigil (2:18) and The Navigator (2:17) and What Dreams May Come (2:19).
The arthouse influences of The Navigator are obvious, Vincent Ward creating an allegory to explore his favourite subject of a small community fearful of the dangers of the outside world, reliant on superstition and acts of self-sacrifice in order to achieve spiritual redemption – a theme that even founded the basis of Alien 3 during his temporary stint as writer and director on the film. Likewise, the director here weaves these themes into an accessible, entertaining and visually striking magical fantasy tale that, like all Vincent Ward’s films, is quite unlike anything else you will ever see. Madman’s Australian DVD release of the film disappointingly, particularly after their packed disc for Vigil, has few extra features, but the transfer is everything you could wish for this film.