Isolated on a New Zealand sheep farm beset by wind and rain, deluged with mud and surrounded by steep hills, the world of eleven-year-old Lisa Peers, known as “Toss,” is dominated by the bold archetypes of her family, mother Elizabeth (Penelope Stewart), father Justin (Gordon Shields) and grandfather “Birdie” (Bill Kerr), and the landscape in which they live together, harsh and unforgiving.
Her family forever engaged in the fight against the elements to keep the farm running, into this stagnant and decaying world comes sudden change; the sudden death of her father in a fall to which Toss is witness, his funeral in the cold rain neither cleansing nor offering comfort, and the arrival of the stranger who carried his body down from the hills and whom Birdie offered a job on the now shorthanded farm.
Elizabeth is understandably resentful how easily her husband is replaced, furiously saying she would rather sell the farm and leave, while Toss is caught in a whirlwind of confusing feelings, suspicious of the stranger yet fascinated, at turns stubborn and wilful, challenging the newcomer who is establishing a presence in their lives.
The debut feature of director Vincent Ward, Vigil was the first New Zealand film to screen in competition at the Cannes International Film Festival, a fact discussed at length in the supporting features on the new Blu-ray released by Arrow Films which include an interview with critic Nick Roddick who saw the film in rough cut and subsequently became involved in its international promotion.
Told through the eyes of Toss, newcomer Fiona Kay cast after an exhaustive search visiting hundreds of schools across New Zealand, she creates her own world of sensation and imagination, actively defying what is around her, making offerings of flesh and blood to the sodden earth as she pleads for the return of her father.
At times seen through flame and ripples of heat, through fog and branches, through rainbows of refracted light, through cracks in doors and in and out of windows and through nightmares, Vigil is like a fairy tale of the cautionary variety rather than the comforting, Toss daubing herself in the fresh blood of a lamb even as her mother applies lipstick as she prepares a meal for the man to whom she has previously been so resistant.
Ethan Ruir (Frank Whitten) first appearing through the fog in the wake of death, a predator with an affinity for hawk and deer, a mystic who plays with light whose brusque presence alternately repels and draws mother and daughter, he is a primal force on both the widowed Elizabeth and Toss, a child on the cusp of comprehending that she will be a woman, Elizabeth reacting to the growing friendship between Ethan and Toss almost as though it is a threat to her.
The saturated colours captured by cinematogrpaher Alun Bollinger, beyond the rich green of the valley it’s a stark and alien world of fog and desiccated trees, while within their means are basic, rusted farm equipment decaying in overgrown fields, anachronisms in this suspended world fallen out of time and memory which when reanimated fight back against their masters.
All but one of the small cast relatively unknown outside New Zealand, the exception being South African native Bill Kerr whose sixty year career took him from The Dam Busters to The Enemy of the World, co-written by Ward and Graeme Tetley Vigil is an abstract meditation on death and life full of symbolism and carried by the complicated and conflicted characters.
With two additional archive features offering different perspectives on the production of the film, they are interesting and offer an unvarnished insight into the location and the physical challenges of the shoot, but Ward and his cast are largely absent almost as though it were a conscious decision to avoid discussion of the meaning of the film which remains open to interpretation thirty four years after release.