"It started out just a film, but it became an experience which changed all our lives."—John Laurie
It begins ominously, with these words on screen: "The slow shadow of death is falling on the outer isles of Scotland." On a wild, abandoned island whose very name ("Hirta") means "death," piles of stones mark the passing of a fiercely independent group of settlers. Andrew Grey (Niall MacGinnis) mournfully tells a tale. Ten years before, Andrew and Ruth Manson (Belle Chrystall) were in love, and the future looked bright for their two families on the windblown and inhospitable island.
But Ruth's fraternal twin Robbie (Eric Berry) knew Hirta was a dead-end and wanted to leave. So Andrew and Robbie agreed to settle their differences with a race to the top of a dangerous cliff.
This was the beginning of the end for the island of Hirta…
But it really was the beginning for the career of Michael Powell. The legendary British director, known for his magical collaborations with Emeric Pressburger like The Red Shoes, had already directed a number of minor films before packing up his cast and crew and heading to the forbidding island of Foula for this melodrama about the dying lifestyle of an isolated culture. The Edge of the World is really a modern folk tale, a story of family honor and the burden of history. The plot seems slightly mythical: it could take place at any time, ten years ago or a thousand. Yet, Powell works hard to make the island of Hirta a real character in the film that often threatens to overwhelm the performers. The story may suggest a folk tale, but the visuals remind us constantly that the story is quite grounded in a specific place: a culture whose traditions are clearly being superceded by new technology.
Powell's success in giving the film a real sense of place is due to his remarkable location photography. Nearly the entire film takes place outdoors, with dangerous shots of men scaling frightening cliffs and struggling along rocks in storm winds. The scenery is breathtaking: it so dominates the film that you will swear it is in color and widescreen. Ironically, the romantic plot of the film is pretty standard stuff, and as such, is often a distraction from the landscape. But John Laurie, as patriarch Peter Manson, is as imposing as the cliffs themselves, carrying much of the real emotional weight of the film.
The Edge of the World benefits from a remarkable restoration done a few years ago, making its Scottish scenery crisp and vivid. Milestone offers a commentary track with Ian Christie and Michael Powell's widow Thelma Schoonmaker discussing the film's production and themes. Daniel Day-Lewis turns up periodically to read from Powell's own writings about the making of the film.
In 1978, for his final directorial effort, Michael Powell revisited Foula for a short film, "Return to the Edge of the World." John Laurie tags along, and we get to meet the surviving cast and crew members among the island's inhabitants. It is good to know that even though the settlers of Hirta were doomed, the people of Foula have done pretty well for themselves thanks to North Sea oil drilling. Milestone also includes a cinematic trifle directed by Powell after his triumphant The Thief of Bagdad. In "An Airman's Letter to His Mother," a downed pilot's final letter (read by John Gielgud) is turned into a shamelessly sentimental propaganda short to boost wartime morale.
This short film is a very minor effort by Powell. The Edge of the World is not so much a minor effort, but it is certainly not as spectacular as his later fantasies. While beautiful to look at, it suffers from a fairly obvious story. The seeds of Powell's later masterpieces—spectacular visuals, the ability to ground fantastic characters and situations in believable worlds—are all here. The Edge of the World does offer stunning location work, and Michael Powell fans will consider this essential as a journeyman effort.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Milestone Films
• Commentary by Ian Christie, Thelma Schoonmaker-Powell, and Daniel Day-Lewis
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