‘The Edge of the World’ Beautifully Conveys the ‘Real’ Realism of British Cinema

[24 August 2010]

By Angelos Koutsourakis

The release of this DVD gives us the chance to enjoy one of the unknown masterpieces of British Cinema. British Cinema has a strong attachment to realism, and this attachment can be identified in contemporary British filmmakers, too. Nonetheless, there are moments that one senses that the British understanding of realism is limited to an uncritical reproduction of the given social and political reality. The effect is that even in films that aim at raising social and political issues, the result is normally barren caused by the lack of ambiguity that characterises this aesthetic.

This is definitely not the case in Michael Powell’s masterpiece, The Edge of the World. The film is inspired by the story of the Saint Kilda, a Scottish island that was evacuated in the beginning of the century due to the young population’s immigration to the mainland for a better future. The elders left behind could not carry out the agricultural works and the fishing, which were necessary for the island’s survival. Eventually, the remaining inhabitants were moved to the Scottish mainland after signing a petition to the government.The story of Saint Kilda inspired Michael Powell and the film was shot in another Scottish island Foula, which is in the north of Scotland.

The Edge of the World has a very loose narrative structure and in many respects the Scottish landscape becomes the major protagonist at the expense of dramaturgy and character portrayal. This aspect of the film is heightened by the fact that many of the portrayed characters are not impersonated by professional actors but by the residents of the Foula islands.

The film is concerned with the rapid modernisation of the Western world, which leads to the depopulation of islands whose inhabitants live on traditional forms of production, such as agriculture, stock raising and fishing. Robbie Manson (Eric Berry), one of the few remaining young people on the island, expresses his desire to explore the world. He faces a hostile reaction from his friend, Andrew Gray (Niall MacGinnis), who is engaged with his sister Ruth (Belle Chrystall). Even his father Peter Manson (John Laurie) is determined to stay, while the only person who seems to understand him is Andrew’s father, James Gray (Finlay Currie), who shares the young man’s scepticism over the island’s ability to offer its residents a decent living.

The two youngsters decide to solve their dispute by means of a race climb up Hoeudi cliff without a rope. The scene of the race climb is a combination of an early cinema aesthetic and an Eisensteinian dialectical collision of antithetical materials. Again, the landscape predominates to the point that people appear as puppets in an impressively wild and uncontrollable environment. The race is fatal for Robbie. His death, along with the heavy winter that destroys large amounts of the harvest, leads the residents to reconcile with the idea of moving off the island.

Two decades later Andre Bazin’s writings on Italian Neorealism advocated a realist aesthetic that led to the disappearance of the author’s/director’s ideology and to a discrediting of dramaturgy in favour of fragments of reality that gave a sense of ambiguity. The audience was asked to connect these fragments and make its own associations. Bazin may not have been aware of Michael Powell’s film, which employs similar strategies such as a semi-documentary aesthetic, narrative asceticism, and dialectical abstraction of images deriving from the concrete reality placed into a loose dramatic context. Furthermore, The Edge of the World employs real locations, natural lightning and non-affectionate acting to the point that major actors, such as John Laurie who plays the leading part, appear less important than the landscape and the historical conditions that lead the island’s residents to leave their land for the security of the modernised mainland.

We shall be grateful to BFI for offering us the opportunity to rediscover this forgotten masterpiece. The extras, too, are valuable. Amongst them, there is a documentary by Michael Powell, who returns to Foula with John Laurie in 1979 to see what has changed on the island 42 years after they filmed The Edge of the World. There’s also a documentary titled St Kilda—Britain’s Loneliest Isle shot in the years of 1923-1928, which gives the audience an insight into the historical background of the island and a full illustrated booklet by Professor Ian Christie.

The release of this DVD was long overdue and it is highly recommended to all those interested in British Cinema.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/129920-the-edge-of-the-world/