TOP 500 REVIEWERon 22 April 2013
This 1937 film by the great British film-maker Michael Powell, who, of course, went on to make a number of classic films (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, etc) with screen-writer Emeric Pressburger, is an evocative, romantic and dramatic tale of an isolated community on a remote Scottish island. Based on the real-life evacuation of the Outer Hebridean island of St Kilda, although actually shot on Foula (part of the Shetlands), at the heart of The Edge Of The World is the tale of two families, the Mansons, led by father Peter (John Laurie) with twins Robbie (Eric Berry) and Ruth (Belle Chrystall), the latter of whom is in love (Romeo and Juliet-style) with Andrew (Niall MacGinnis), the son of (friendly) rival to the Hansons, James Gray (Finlay Currie).
What emerges from Powell's film, probably above all else, is the man's affectionate feelings for this far-flung rural community - fond subject matter that he was to revisit on later films such as The Spy In Black, set on and around the Orkneys, and the romantic classic I Know Where I'm Going, set on Mull. (The other obvious comparator for Powell's film is Robert Flaherty's 1934 island epic, Man of Aran). The BFI's superlative restoration and Ernest Palmer's (and others) excellent camerawork (no doubt under the expert tutelage of Powell himself) serve to create an authentic backdrop for the film. This is a resilient, strictly religious community, whose only form of communication with the outside world is (literally) via messages in bottles (thrown out to sea), as they go about their business of sheep shearing (and rescuing), fishing and peat cutting, with entertainment being provided for now and again in the form of a small-scale ceilidh.
Not only is the setting for Powell's film on 'the edge of the world', but the islanders' livelihood is teetering on the edge of viability, as most younger members of the community (including Peter's son Robbie) seek to leave the island ('the world's changed') for better prospects on the mainland. Unable to decide, via the island's small-scale 'parliament', on whether to vacate Hirta (the Scottish Gaelic name for St Kilda that Powell gave to his fictional island), the two sons, Robbie and Andrew challenge each other (in traditional fashion) to climb the island's tallest sea cliff for the right to determine their future. There follows a superb sequence showcasing Powell's nascent visual and dramatic flair (plus moments of Hitchcockian suspense to boot) as the two rivals risk life and limb against the extraordinary island and marine backdrop.
Acting-wise, of course, given that many of Powell's cast were either complete novices, or relatively inexperienced, the film has its fair share of stilted dialogue. However, each of Berry, Chrystall and MacGinnis are generally nicely affecting, whilst Finlay Currie as Gray Snr. is (as ever) excellent and wryly comic (quipping to the priest, 'Grand sermon John, one hour and fifteen minutes. Let them beat that in Edinburgh if they can!'). But the thespian honours must go to John Laurie's dour (though eventually smiling) traditionalist, Manson Snr., in effect a reincarnation of his crofting character in The 39 Steps (made two years earlier) and one that he (no doubt) frequently re-used right through to his fabulous Sergeant Fraser in Dad's Army.
For the DVD, the BFI have performed a remarkably good restoration, resulting in an unblemished black-and-white 'print'. Among the excellent extras included are a commentary by Ian Christie and Thelma Schoonmaker, a documentary on Powell's return to Foula 41 years later and a documentary on St Kilda.
Obviously, The Edge Of The World is not as polished or substantive as some of Powell's later masterpieces, but it is nevertheless a fine piece of work (particularly for its time) and a significant portent of things to come.