The visually impressive Vigil announced the arrival of New Zealand filmmaker Vincent Ward in 1984, a dark and lyrical, brooding and edgy film that would serve as the predecessor to such films as my beloved Map of the Human Heart and The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey. With this recent Arrow Films re-release in special edition, I had the chance to revisit Vigil over 20 years after first viewing the film and found myself even more appreciative of its visual mastery and of young Fiona Kay's remarkable performance.
In the film, Kay plays 12-year-old Toss, a young girl who lives on an isolated New Zealand farm with her father, ex-ballerina mother (Penelope Stewart), and grandfather (Bill Kerr). It's only a few minutes into the film that Toss's father is killed while attempting to rescue a straying sheep that has tumbled down a ravine, an accident that leads to an encounter with the mysterious stranger (Frank Whitten) who has retrieved his body and returned it to the family farm.
In the aftermath of the father's death, mother Elizabeth wishes to sell the farm. However, the grandfather aims to hire the mysterious stranger, Ethan, to help keep the farm running.
If there's a flaw in Vigil, it's that you likely know exactly where it's headed long before it's headed there. It's a relatively minor flaw given the remarkable journey that takes us there, but it does occasionally hinder the film's emotional impact. Upon its release, Vigil was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and picked up three awards in the New Zealand Film and TV Awards - Best Screenplay - Original, Best Cinematography, and Best Production Design. Indeed, Alun Bollinger's lensing for Vigil is extraordinary, dark and pastoral and enveloped by both mood and meaning.
Yet, I can't help believing that it's the performance of young Fiona Kay that turns Vigil into a near masterpiece, her young girl on the cusp of young womanhood filled with both innocence and edgy mystery and passion. It's the kind of performance that could never be chalked up as your usual "child" performance as the performance far transcends that of a child - it's, quite simply, masterful acting of the highest class.
Vigil is a gently paced film, but not a particularly gentle film. It's not particularly surprising when a relationship begins to develop between Elizabeth and Ethan...it's equally unsurprising when Elizabeth's own budding sexuality creates a tension in the film, an eerie edginess serves as the film's aura in its second half.
Picked up by Arrow Films for a rather remarkable special edition, Vigil is a sublime, if not particularly perfect, arthouse effort and a film worth watching if only for Fiona Kay's remarkable performance. Offering evidence of Ward's immense talent that lived on in more well known and accessible films, Vigil is the kind of little indie gem that you'll find yourself revisiting every few years and amazed at how well it's held up.
This special edition includes the following extras:
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
- 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
- On-set report from the long-running New Zealand television programme Country Calendar
- Extract from a 1987 Kaleidoscope television documentary on New Zealand cinema, focusing on Vigil and Vincent Ward
- Theatrical trailer
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by the Twins of Evil
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Carmen Gray
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic