“The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey”

Special Edition Blu-ray

Amos Lassen

“The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey” is set in Cumbria in 1348 the year of the Black Death and is a fusion of medieval fantasy and time travel science fiction. It all begins in a Scottish village that is petrified with fear by rumors of the Black Death. A young boy named Griffin experiences clairvoyant dreams that lead a group of villagers to dig a tunnel through the Earth and through time to 20th Century Auckland in search of deliverance. They save the village, but at a price. The story is powerful, and an evocation of Medieval life and its contrast with a late 20th century setting. However, the film that was once a contender for top prize at the Cannes Film Festival has gone unnoticed.

Directed by Vincent Ward, the film is rather modest in scale, but its themes are grand and there’s a grand passion behind its images. It is about the healing power of dreamers, and it has a dreamer’s evocative intensity. Unfortunately, it also has a dreamer’s foolishness, and there are times when it comes very close to being laughable.

Mostly, however, “The Navigator” is a combination of beauty and listlessness. Ward, who grew up in New Zealand and now lives in Australia, has a talent for creating haunting visual poetry such as in images like the one in which a flaming torch tumbles, end over end, into a vast darkness. The film’s metaphors carry both beauty and meaning.

Unfortunately, Ward’s narrative gifts are not as developed as his visual ones and the story itself has no real dramatic tension or conflict. The film’s heroes are simple Christian miners, terrified by the approach of an evil tide. Ward isn’t able to convey the full dimension of the fear these villagers feel over the advance of a horror that will almost certainly wipe out their entire population. We expect panic, dissension and violence and what we see is a group of well-behaved peasants searching for a reasonable solution and when we consider the state of urgency, this is highly unlikely.

The solution they reach h is a spiritual one, urged on them by Griffin (Hamish McFarlane), a youth prone to prophetic visions. In his mind’s eye, he sees a church, a cross that is reflected in water, and a great pit, deeper than the imagination can fathom. Based on this, Griffin and four men begin a pilgrimage to find the church and save their families by placing a cross atop it but this must be finished before the coming of the full moon, which they believe carries the Death.

Production still from ‘The Navigator – A Medieval Odyssey’ 1988

To reach their destination, these pilgrims must dig a path alongside the pit, which they believe leads to the other side of the world. What they discover on their journey, though, is the other side of time. Pushing through the last wall of their tunnel, these accidental time travelers find themselves in modern-day New Zealand, a place as alien to them as another planet would be and that presents them with a great many unexpected problems.

The problem for us is that these obstacles (such as the crossing a highway) seem commonplace and predictable. In some sequences, like the one in which Connor (Bruce Lyons), the village’s leader, faces down a monstrous industrial crane, Ward is able to capture the magical oddness of the world as it must seem to these visitors. But for the most part, his depiction is lacking in wonder and fails to draw us in.

As a result, this whole section of the film is anticlimactic. The film sets us up for Connor, who has recently come back from the outside world with tales of the Death, to play the hero, then backs away from him in favor of Griffin, the artist figure, the boy visionary. In doing so, Ward makes a muddle of his story, but his message remains clear: It is the artist who must die the symbolic death in these plague times and save society — it is the dreamer who must play God. As a metaphoric sentiment, this is all well and good, but in the face of an actual plague, this is either too romantic, or just naive to suggest that artists can save us.

Ward is correct in that that artists play an irreplaceable role in the life of a culture, though he seems to have misunderstood exactly what that role is. The problem may be that his faith in the real power of art is too great. Perhaps this accounts for the film’s passion. It is also the reason for many of its weaknesses.

“The Navigator” opens very bravely and ambitiously with a four-minute dream/vision sequence, cutting between high-contrast grainy black and white images and vivid color to show us a bunch of hooded medieval characters 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 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 that, because of its isolated location, has so far been spared the worst ravages of the Plague that is devastating the world.

Production still from ‘The Navigator – A Medieval Odyssey’ 1988

Connor who has journeyed out of the village returns to confirm their worst fears and that is that the Black Death has a grip on the country and is claiming victims 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 visions seem to confirm this belief, and that by tunneling 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 city. They navigate the dangers of 20th century technology to 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.

The film is split between the 14th and 20th centuries and being filmed alternately in black & white and color, and the time shifts and culture shock are handled 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 inflicts on the little-known world outside their village. Good characterization defines each of the characters with a strong and individual personality and a fervent belief and determination to carry out their mission. The lives of everyone they know depends on it and 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 an 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 an AIDS information announcement.

“The Navigator” is perhaps director Vincent Ward’s purest and most visually delightful film. I immediately fell in love with it.

SPECIAL EDITION Special Features include:

High Definition (Blu-ray) presentation

Original mono audio (uncompressed LPCM)

Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing

Brand-new appreciation by film critic Nick Roddick, recorded exclusively for this release

Kaleidoscope: Vincent Ward Film Maker, a 1989 documentary profile of the director made for New Zealand television

Theatrical trailer

FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Kim Newman and an introduction by Vincent Ward

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