The extraordinary vision and unique qualities of New Zealand filmmaker Vincent Ward achieved international recognition with his second full-length feature film, 1988’s The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey, a film about a mining community in 14th century Cumbria who dig a tunnel through the earth to escape the Black Death only to come out in modern day New Zealand. The qualities of this singular, otherworldly vision were strong enough to place the director alongside Ridley Scott and James Cameron as one of a series of directors originally lined-up for Alien 3. It was a long way from the director’s rather more humble beginnings as a filmmaker in New Zealand, which we are fortunate enough to be able to examine in Madman’s Australian DVD release of Ward’s 1984 debut feature Vigil, a release that also includes other examples of Vincent Ward’s early film work.
A young girl called Iris (Fiona Kay), known to her family as Toss, lives on a farm in a remote isolated part of New Zealand, helping her father tend the sheep on the hills. Iris is about to make the first difficult steps on road to adulthood, but has no real role models outside of her immediate family and, with her short-hair, could easily be mistaken for a boy. Iris’s father dies in an accident while attempting to rescue a fallen sheep and is carried back to the farm by a dark, bearded stranger. Unable to continue the farm without a shepherd, the man, Ethan (Frank Whitten) is hired to carry out the tending of the sheep on the farm while grandfather Birdie (Bill Kerr) attempts to construct a machine to dig through a hollow portion of the mountain and drain the land of the rain that lies sodden in the ground around them. Isolated and alone, feeling that God has abandoned them, Toss, skulks around the farm, wearing her father’s cowl and wrapped up in her own little world of strange rituals, wary of the menacing, dark presence that the huge man represents to her.
Vincent Ward’s debut film makes fine use of its isolated location, with superb cinematography by Alun Bollinger that captures the textures of the otherworldly, alien, rain-sodden landscape in a manner reminiscent of Tarkovsky. Symbolism plays a large part in a film where otherwise very little of significance actually happens. The approach of Lisa’s coming of age is symbolised in a baptism of blood she receives when presenting a baby lamb for docking to the dark, mysterious Ethan, who represents the imposing presence of masculinity. This symbolism is repeated later when her mother Lizzie (Penelope Stewart) almost sacrificially offers a sheep, and by extension herself, up to the man – perhaps to keep his attentions away from her daughter.
Much of the symbolism and the themes here, from the use of isolated communities to the idea of self-sacrifice and the search for spiritual answers faced with the prospect of death, is present throughout Vincent Ward’s work; from the boy who has visions in The Navigator (the digging of a tunnel to save themselves is introduced in Vigil also); to Eskimo Avik’s attempt through maps and photographs that capture the soul to win back childhood sweetheart Albertine from the man who rescued him as a young boy from death in the remoteness of the Arctic; as well as Robin William’s attempt to reach his wife from beyond death in What Dreams May Come - all develop these ideas in an increasingly elaborate and original manner. It’s also not hard to see the connection between these films and the original idea for Alien 3, where an the isolated planet of medieval-style monks is faced with the prospect of a dark killing force and is saved by an act of self-sacrifice on the part of Ripley.
Despite its clear early attempt to achieve a greater spiritual and mystical resonance, Vigil however remains a small film where little of interest happens, never achieving the kind of universal or spiritual depth, or even the personal dimension that such material would in the hands of a director like Tarkovsky, who is the obvious influence and reference for this kind of subject matter. What Vigil does manage to achieve is a gritty, earthy physicality, some note-perfect performances from the cast and a sense of direction and cinematography that is perfectly attuned to the environment and the circumstances.
Vigil 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. The DVD can be purchased from EzyDVD.com
The video transfer of the film is beautiful. You could quibble about its tendency towards darker tones, heavy contrast and over-saturation, but this is more than likely intentional and suggestive of 16mm film stock. It gives the film exactly the right tone, capturing the bleak, wild environments of its New Zealand locations perfectly, with deep blacks, rich greens, and a gritty level of grain that captures the wonderful roughness of textures. You might also find something to fault with some minor flicker of macro-blocking artefacts in the grainy backgrounds and a suggestion of haloing around figures, but these are relatively minor flaws. Overall, it’s a glorious transfer that is perfectly suited to the film and about as good as you would expect a film like this to look on DVD.
The audio track, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 is also of extremely high quality – not in high-fidelity terms, as this is a film that is fairly low-key in its sound design – but in terms of being true to the original soundtrack and the atmosphere it wishes to evoke it is spot-on, with no background noise or distortion problems. Dialogue is clear, the music score comes across effectively, the cries of hawks and the wind howl echoingly to enforce the sense of isolation, the rain patters resoundingly and the sodden soil squelches deeply.
The film is English language and there are no hard of hearing subtitles.
The extra features contain two short films by Vincent Ward, made prior to his first feature film. In Spring One Plants Alone (43:06) is a documentary film about a bent-over, hardy old aboriginal Maori lady who lives with her schizophrenic son on a remote New Zealand farm. The subject doesn’t sound particularly promising and nothing much happens over the course of the film, but it is compelling viewing, giving an insight into the reality of the poverty and deprivation these people live in. As such it is highly relevant to the main feature, particularly in its whole look and feel. Vincent Ward’s first fictional narrative short film A State Of Seige (49:16) is based on a novel by Janet Frame. A spinster schoolteacher of Art on her retirement buys a house and moves up north, far from the genteel society of ladies clubs, where she paints watercolours of the wild and desolate landscapes. There she finds time to reflect on the life she dreary life she had led and left behind, but is terrorised by a prowler outside her house. Like In Spring One Plants Alone, both shot as with Vigil by Alun Bollinger (reunited with Ward again for his long-awaited new 2005 film River Queen), the short film operates beautifully through a mostly silent, visual narrative that is loaded with atmosphere. The print quality on both films, both in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, is pretty much flawless. The extra features package is rounded out with a beautiful Photo Gallery of 15 full-screen 16:9 colour and black & white images, and a Vincent Ward Trailer Reel for the Madman releases of Vigil (2:18), The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (2:17) and What Dreams May Come (2:19).
Vigil’s obvious artschool Bergman and Tarkovsky influences are quite evident, certainly recalling Mirror without ever being directly derivative, but at the same time never achieving the same sense of depth and resonance as either of those directors. It is interesting nevertheless to see Vincent Ward trying in this debut film to find a way to express certain ideas, techniques and themes that have since become quite familiar in his work. With his subsequent films, the director would move away from those influences to find his own means of expression in a more mainstream accessible cinematic format. An ever more elaborate method often pushes the material to the brink of the ludicrous, but for all their flaws, each of Vincent Ward’s infrequent cinematic extravaganzas remain fascinating and highly individual pieces of work. The transfer of the main feature to DVD is almost impeccable and to have it supported by two other examples of Vincent Ward’s early work is marvellous, both films being fascinating early exercises in technique and narrative storytelling.