Vincent Ward remains one of cinema’s major enigmas—he hasn’t made a film in over ten years. In fact, he’s best known for the film he never made: Alien³. Ward followed initial screenwriter William Gibson in taking on that project, and his plan was structurally similar to what was actually made, but set on a wooden planet populated by monks. He left that project during pre-production following conflicts with the production crew. When Fox demanded a large number of changes, he walked (although he did get a story credit) and David Fincher was hired.
Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, Ward made a series of really indescribable, uncategorisable films, initially in his native New Zealand and eventually in the US. He swore off working in America after directing the deeply flawed but visually extraordinary What Dreams May Come. He’s made just one feature since, River Queen, plus a “dramatic documentary,” Rain of the Children, which has only had a limited release. His early work—Vigil and The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey— has become the stuff of legend, because it’s been impossible to see for so long. Both have now been re-released by Arrow.
Vigil (1984) is Ward’s debut feature, and the movie that really kicked off his directorial career. It was the film Kiwi film ever entered at Cannes, and was reasonably successful internationally, paving the way for The Piano to later sweep the Palme d’Or in the ’90s. It’s set in the almost science-fiction landscape of a remote New Zealand farmstead. The central character is Toss, an 11-year-old who is similar to the child at the end of Tartovsky’s Stalker. Her father falls to his death trying to save a sheep that has become trapped in a crack on a mountain ledge. Then a mysterious outsider shows up, and before long is involved with the child’s mother. Toss, who is on the verge of puberty, decides that the invader is the devil incarnate and unwelcome in her isolated world.
Ward has such a singular vision as a filmmaker that the film emerged from a short dream sequence where two knights joust with shovels. The result is a disturbing, poetic, very imaginative film.
The film that it reminds me most of is Tideland, but Vigil is a much creepier movie. The visitor behaves suggestively towards the child in a very disturbing scene. She had pegged him for an evil character from the beginning, while she is grieving the death of her father, who she was clearly much closer to than her mother.
Casting the part of Toss was apparently quite difficult as Ward is a very exacting director, one who goes to ridiculous lengths to realise his ideas. Ward has been tagged as “the antipodean Werner Herzog,” and that’s probably a fair assessment (indeed Herzog appears in a cameo in What Dreams May Come, so Ward is obviously a fan). His casting choice was perfect.
Overall the initial reviews were good, although a few critics really hated it. Ward is not a filmmaker for everyone so that’s no surprise. He is first and foremost a painter, so his films are always gorgeous to look at. He has very little interest in narrative, and since returning to New Zealand he has returned to being a working visual artist.
Vigil is ripe for rediscovery—it was made by an individualist filmmaker who has followed his own ideas, and has been unseeable for so long. The Arrow disc includes a new appreciation by film critic Nick Roddick, who has been involved in the New Zealand film industry himself (and provided Ward with space to write The Navigator in his London flat). There are also two archival shorts from New Zealand television: an extract from a documentary on New Zealand cinema, and an on-set report from when Vigil was being made. It’s clear from the documentary that Ward is a very shy individual—and it’s clear from his work that he’s probably the most interesting filmmaker ever to come out of New Zealand.