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‘The Navigator: An Odyssey Across Time’ (PG)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 29, 1989

It's a bum deal, being a visionary. For more conventional artists working the formulaic main streets, failures are of less consequence because less is attempted, less ventured. Also, it seems we are often more tolerant of artists who fail in expected ways than in those who take magnificent chances and fail magnificently.

Vincent Ward's new film "The Navigator: An Odyssey Across Time" isn't a magnificent object. In fact, it's rather modest in scale, but its themes are grand and there's a grand passion behind its images. Set in 14th-century Cumbria at the time of the Black Death, the movie is about the healing power of dreamers, and it has a dreamer's evocative intensity. It also has a dreamer's foolishness, and there are times when it comes dangerously close to being laughable.

Mostly, though, "The Navigator" is a combination of ravishing beauty and listlessness. Ward, who grew up in New Zealand and now lives in Australia, has a talent for creating haunting visual poetry. He showed this in "Vigil," the first of his films to be released here, and in "The Navigator" images such as the one in which a flaming torch tumbles, end over end, into a vast darkness demonstrate his ability to conjure up provocative film metaphors that carry both beauty and meaning.

Unfortunately, Ward's narrative gifts are not as fully developed as his visual ones. 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. But 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. What you expect is panic, dissension, perhaps even violence. What is shown -- remarkably articulate, poised and well-behaved peasants searching for a reasonable solution -- not only appears unlikely, but robs the story of its urgency. Sitting calmly around their flickering fires, they seem to be preparing for the arrival of a particularly unpleasant relative.

The solution the miners come up with is a spiritual one, urged on them by Griffin, an ardent youth prone to prophetic visions. In his mind's eye, the boy -- played by Hamish McFarlane -- sees a church, a cross reflected in water, and a great pit, deeper than the imagination can fathom. Based on this presentiment, Griffin and four men begin a pilgrimage to find the church and save their families by placing a cross atop its barren spire, all before the coming of the full moon, which they believe carries the Death.

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 of a major highway -- seem commonplace and predictable. Also, though Ward is able to find a resonant style for his scenes set in the medieval world, those shot in the modern world seem surprisingly flat. 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 an anticlimax, an elucidation on events already outlined in Griffin's visions. Dramatically, 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 is 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 Christ. As a metaphoric sentiment, this is all well and good, but in the face of an actual plague, like AIDS or the Black Death, it is excessively romantic, or flat-out naive, to suggest that artists can save us.

Ward is an artist himself -- one with a seductive sensibility and distinctive talents. And he is right 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. Unfortunately, it also accounts for many of its weaknesses.

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