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“A tantalizing meditation on faith, mystery, and imagination.
Sometime in the Middle Ages, a group of men living in fear of the Black Death follow the visions of a nine year-old boy (Hamish MacFarlane) to go on a pilgrimage by digging a tunnel through the center of the earth (!) emerging instead in twentieth century New Zealand (!) where they try to complete their journey by erecting a cross atop a church steeple. A willing suspension of disbelief (or the kind of unquestioning faith that the main characters have) never hurts when watching something like this, but if you’re in the right frame of mind, this fable will gradually draw you into its tantalizing meditation on faith, mystery, and imagination
The Navigator’s dream-like storyline revolves around Griffin (Hamish McFarlane) a psychic nine-year-old boy who experiences strange visions of an alternate reality. The film begins in 14th-century England in a small snow-tipped mining village, where news arrives that the Black Plague will soon consume the populace.
A handful of men, including Griffin’s brother Connor (Bruce Lyons), take the boy’s advice and, as you do, dig a tunnel deep into the bowels of the earth in an attempt to find “the far side of the world.” They emerge, looking understandably perplexed and rather worse for wear, in a late 20th-century metropolis.
The film morphs from grainy monochrome photography to colour, a transition deployed to equally striking effect in Wim Wender’s seminal romantic fantasy Wings of Desire (released one year prior).
Surprises keep coming, The Navigator’s luminous visual inventions (in part the work of long-time Australian cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson, who also shot Shine and Satellite Boy) designed from the perspective of imagining what a modern world would look like from a medieval perspective.
Gazing for the first time at skyscrapers and city buildings lit up in the night, Martin (Paul Livingston, the Australian comedian best known for appearances on shows such as Good News Week as his alter ego Flacco) says in wonder: “It must be God’s city. There’s so much light.”
The chubby and grubby Ulf (Noel Appleby) finds himself in a precarious situation in the middle of a busy highway, struck by the beauty of incoming headlights.
“So pretty, so pretty,” says the discombobulated time traveller, who lugs around a wooden carving of the Virgin Mary and looks like a distant relative of Robin Williams’ crazy homeless man character from Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King.
In The Navigator there are many moments of intense beauty that branch off the film’s core fish-out-of-water premise, including a man attached to the front of a fast-moving train and the group’s violent reaction to a submarine rising from the water (they interpret it as a giant beast attacking them).
The simplest and most effective is the sight of Griffin discovering rows of stacked televisions behind glass in an electronics shop. Film-maker Rolf de Heer’s staged a similar scene in his 2007 time travel comedy Dr Plonk, when his displaced protagonist accidentally found himself transferring from the silent film era to modern society.
The mission for the characters in The Navigator is to climb to the top of a church spire; the film is ripe with religious undertones. Ward contemplated ideas around heaven and hell directly in his more mainstream, but nevertheless distinctive Hollywood experiment, 1998’s What Dreams May Come. He was at one point on board to direct Alien 3 after producer Walter Hill saw The Navigator and was blown away by it.
Almost three decades later, the film is still gobsmacking to watch and shows no signs of ageing. It is the sort of head trip that leaves audiences gasping for air and critics lunging for adjectives. Turns of phrase such as “visual poetry” are sometimes synonymous with “boring” or “plot-less.” That’s certainly not the case here: this is a jaw-dropping experience up there with cinema’s best out-of-world experiences. - Luke Buckmaster
The Black Death looms large over the evocative first act of Vincent Ward’s The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey. Penitent monks wander the landscape of 14th-century northwestern England, hoping to come under God’s protection. Occasionally the dead pass through the film’s black-and-white frames in coffins, with villagers muttering solemnly about the countless other corpses that litter the country with no one to give them proper burial. The malaise left by the plague haunts almost every shot, so plunged in darkness.
In their fear, peasants fall back on superstition and faith for comfort. A village adventurer, Connor (Bruce Lyons), returns from a sojourn shaken by the spectacle of mass death. Looking to stave off the plague, he and a group of fellow villagers are drawn to a psychic young boy, Griffin (Hamish McFarlane), whose visions of earning God’s mercy by placing a copper cross on the tallest cathedral in the region are taken as prophecy by his desperate elders.
This band of men sets out to cast a copper cross and place it on the steeple of “the biggest church in all of Christendom.” They tunnel into the earth for the finest copper ore, only to dig so deep that they travel through time, emerging in present-day New Zealand—and in so doing, the film switches to color. In their confusion and provincialism, the men assume this is what any large city from this period is supposed to look like, and they navigate Auckland undeterred in their quest. The stage would appear to be effectively set for a fish-out-of-water comedy in the vein of Time Bandits.
Ward, though, doesn’t settle for cliché, tinging his heroes’ journey with a sense of the fantastic as they confront such obstacles as a bustling highway, the towering spire of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, even a submarine that surfaces in a harbor and that the men attempt to spear like a whale. Ward originally intended to make a jauntier film, and he even planned to cast little people as the time-traveling troupe. Yet the final film is a serious attempt to fully empathize with the displacement felt by his characters.
Take the scene in which the heroes emerge in Auckland and find themselves at the edge of the wide and busy highway, scared witless by the existence of cars. Instead of playing the scene for laughs, Ward homes in on the sheer terror felt by the old and kindly Ulf (Noel Appleby) as he unsuspectingly finds himself on the other end of the highway separated from the rest of his party. Connor reveals his panic over the group’s situation before then making the decision to abandon his friend in order to continue their quest—and the scene is capped by Ward poignantly highlighting the old man’s uncomprehending, tear-stained face as his friends desert him.
The party’s unwavering focus on their quest gives The Navigator its propulsive momentum. The film’s second half is devoted to the group’s attempt to place their cross on the spire of St. Patrick’s, a seemingly simple matter that’s delayed by various setbacks—digressions that successfully work to enrich the characters. The issue of Connor’s occasional cowardice and dubious qualification to lead comes to a head, as does Griffin’s increasing zeal to contribute to the group’s efforts. Griffin’s religious fervor is contrasted with the wavering faith of his compatriots, who feel more displacement than ever when attempting to reconcile St. Patrick’s, with its classical architecture and interior design, with the modern city that surrounds it. The doubt sown among the men plays out in the film’s dour coda, which directly questions the efficacy of not only this quest but any mythic journey to counter a foe like the Black Death that cannot be slain with swords or sorcery. - Jake Cole
Vincent Ward's first two films are strikingly original and atmospheric, and this is the more straightforward of the two (despite a story-changing denouement).
The Navigator (an antipodean co-production which won Best Film at the 1988 AFIs) provides a rousing showcase of Vincent Ward's capabilities. Noticeable in Ward's work is a curious trend of complexly evolving relationships with father figures, his work ever brought vividly to cinematic life through differing perception. The most stunning passage of the film is the escapist, doomsday-defying quest through modern-day New Zealand in search of a vision, the film reaching a giddy high of overlapping, fish-out-of-water reality.
The Navigator represents one of the finest displays of how to make a film fun and adventurous, as well as haunting and timely. An encounter with a submarine here demands to be seen. The subtextual spectre of 80s AIDS simmers throughout, including a glimpse of the iconic grim reaper commercial down under. This desperate plight, at the brink of apocalypse (whether black death, AIDS or nuclear holocaust), recalls the spiritual yearning of Bergman and Tarkovsky.
The Navigator, like Ward's other films, is not for everyone, but it does benefit from being one of his more disciplined (one of those directors who flourishes best under confined budgets, loses direction and form when the limit heads skyward). Like with Vigil, if this often brilliant work does connect with you, you'll revel in one of his more mesmerising works. - Ruth Scouller
A great little parable that has a killer central premise - 14th century Englishmen, desperate to escape the onslaught of the Black Death tunnel their way through the world and emerge in modern day New Zealand - shot through with Vincent Ward's unique eye.
The premise is given credence with a decent set up - an offering needs to be made to god, but all villages around the travellers own are infected so there is nowhere else to go but down, fuelled by the clear and stark visions of a young boy. And these scenes are given a real 'Hard to be a God' flavour by being shot in high contrast, stark black and white, giving the whole thing a horribly realistic, grim and gritty texture to it.
Once the adventurers get to NZ, the film switches to bold colour, emphasising the duality of the two eras. There is no fish out of water hilarity here - no Les Visituers style comedy capers thank fuck, however the 'realism' of the opening narrative gives way to something else, something much more 'fable-like' which is not apparent until the films final act: some may be disappointed by some huge narrative leaps here, but stick with it as these come into stark focus come the films conclusion.
There is much that can be read into the film - musing on the place of religion in the modern world, the relative ease of modern life that comes at a spiritual cost, etc - but it can also be enjoyed as a simple fable. Its very well put together - no huge visual effects are needed, so it looks very tactile and real - and its acted very well by all, although here is where my biggest criticism comes in: the actors playing the medieval group have accents that are not only all over the place, but are so thick a lot of initial dialogue is difficult to understand. Its not a deal breaker not by any means, but it does mean that those early scenes are harder work than they should be, seeing possible authenticity get in the way of cinematic story telling.
But that's a minor gripe - this is a very different type of film, one that's well worth seeking out and yet again, ruing the potential of Ward's could-have-been-amazing Alien 3. - Mark Costello