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Vigil is filmmaking at its finest and most satisfying...

Vigil, New Zealand, 1984

Director: Vincent Ward
Production co: John Maynard Productions
Producer: John Maynard
Executive producer: Gary Hannam
Screenplay: Vincent Ward, Graham Tetley
Assistant screenwriter: Fiona Lindsay
Production manager: Bridget Ikin
Photography: Alun Bollinger
Music: Jack Body
Editor: Simon Reece
Sound: Graham Morris
Production design: Kai Hawkins

With: Bill Kerr (Birdie), Fiona Kay (Toss), Frank Whitten (Ethan), Gordon Shield (Justin), Penelope Stewart (Elizabeth)

35mm, 90 minutes, PG–Contains sexual references

Festivals: Cannes 1984 (Vigil was the first Kiwi feature to be in competition at Cannes)

Watch the Vigil trailer


In a remote valley, a farmer dies and in his wake comes a hunter. The farmer’s daughter, Toss watches him. When he starts a relationship with her mother, Toss decides he is a predator. She must expel him from her valley.

“As a child growing up on a farm, you are alone for long periods of time. You invent imaginary worlds. Vigil is precisely that: the story of a solitary child who watches, fantasises and dreams. The fragments of reality she perceives are put together according to her own logic”. — Vincent Ward

"Vigil is the strongest, most personally inspired film to come out of New Zealand to date. In form and content, and in its detailed and immaculate concern with visual imagery, it establishes in a single blow the place of its creator, 27-year-old Vincent Ward, as a unique film talent. Vigil has been a time in the making. After completing two award-winning short features, A State of Siege (Golden Hugo winner at Chicago) and In Spring One Plants Alone (Grand Prix co-winner at Cinema du Reel in France) he began work on this, his first feature. It was four years in gestation before a 10-week shoot in a remote valley during a wet winter and early spring of 1983. Ward's landscape is archetypal New Zealand but universal as well. His four main characters, locked as certainly within themselves as within the primeval valley they occupy and farm, constantly confront each other and withdraw as in the manner of an ancient dance. Central figure is 11-year-old Toss, on the threshold of womanhood and caught in the tragedy of the death of her father and the coincidental arrival of a stranger, Ethan. It is primarily through her eyes, actions and interpretation of events, that the impact of Ethan's presence upon the household is registered. … The remarkable quality of the film is the way it gives fresh resonance to universal themes. Ward's canvas contains the detail of old woodcuts found in brassbound bibles. Hawks swoop like angels of death down the ravines of rain-forest mountains; the act of searing off lambs' tails assumes the significance of an age-old rite. The director is supported strongly in realization of his vision by the superb photography of Alun Bollinger, cameraman on Ward's two short features, and Jack Body's music, which never overpowers but blends subtly with sound effects and images. The acting of principals is never found wanting. Kerr, in a role that gives full rein to his skilled comic gifts, is particularly fine, while Stewart, an Australian actress, finds both the remoteness and innate sexuality within Elizabeth. Whitten personifies expertly the ominous aloneness of Ethan. But it is young Fiona Kay who is the essential touchstone of the piece and with her Ward has discovered a near-perfect alter ego. Her Toss is imbued with restless inner intensity that is always compelling. Her elfin quality resides in the truest sense of that description, mischievously supernatural, never cute. Vigil is filmmaking at its finest and most satisfying..." — Mike Nicolaidi, Variety, 2 May 1984

"It takes all of about a minute before you realize that Fiona Kay, the young star of Vigil, is a remarkable screen actress. And once you lock into her performance you're locked in for good, unable to look away even for an instant. Child actors often have an openness in front of the camera that naturally allows them to work in an easy, unaffected manner. Kay has that quality of ease, but I don't know that I've ever seen a young actress display the combination of restraint and sheer power that she shows here. To find comparisons, I'm reminded not of any contemporary actress, but of earlier, silent screen performers – of Lillian Gish and Maria Falconetti. And if that sounds like high praise, that is precisely what is intended. Perhaps actors from the silent days come to mind because there is so little dialogue in Vigil and because Kay is called upon to communicate her character completely through the tiniest, subtlest gestures and expressions. Or perhaps because she possesses the same sort of compacted intensity that they had. Her character, whose name is Toss, is around 12 (Kay's age when the film was shot) and just on the brink of becoming a woman. She lives with her father and mother and her grandfather on a sheep farm in the raw New Zealand hills, but shortly after the movie opens the father tumbles to his death as he is trying to rescue a sheep that has fallen down a ravine. In the aftermath of this tragedy, Toss' mother Elizabeth (Penelope Stewart), a striking ex-ballerina, decides to put the farm up for sale. The grandfather (Bill Kerr) has other ideas, though, and hires Ethan (Frank Whitten), the hunter who carried the father's body back to the farm, to help keep the place going. The death of the father and Ethan's arrival immediately create odd disturbances and sexual stirrings in Toss – especially after the tension between Ethan and Elizabeth blossoms into a full-blown affair – and we can see her trying to deal with these new emotions as they crowd in on her. Innumerable movies have dealt with the theme of a young woman's coming of age, but director Vincent Ward and his young star have penetrated deep into their subject and mined something hauntingly unexpected. In Vigil, Ward gives us images that play like blasted poetry. The mood of the film is dark and portentous, as if somewhere off in the distance a terrible danger lurks. And though we sense that far-off threat, we never know precisely what it is – or at least until late in the film. Sex and death and the starkly dramatic pastoral imagery that Ward and the cinematographer, Alun Bollinger, have provided become interwoven, so much so that almost every frame seems to carry a double load of meaning... what Ward has given us here has both fragility and weight. When we see Toss examining herself in a mirror stashed away in an old car in the middle of a field, her torso bare to the waist, we feel that we are privy to a secret communication that is taking place between the girl and her image in the glass. There is something devastatingly frank about the way in which Toss' eyes search for information, for some shred of data that might clue her in to the changes happening to her. And afterward, we can't get her features out of our heads. In her face, a soul is laid bare." — Hal Hinson, Washington Post, 26 March 1988

Screenings: Vigil screened 6-8 June 2013 to support the exhibition Magic Playgrounds: Historical Images of New Zealand Childhoods, part 1 The Environment: on 20 February 2007 as part of the Big Sky: Empty Land programme; on 19 April 2006 as part of First Steps chosen by Film Archive CE Frank Stark; and on 14 December 2005 as part of a selection made by film maker and costume designer Kirsty Cameron