Reviews

The Edge of the World (1937)

David Sanjek

Michael Powell's work reveals the unshakable conviction that film should overwhelm the audience with an artist's deliberately crafted vision.


The Edge of the World

Director: Michael Powell
Cast: John Laurie, Belle Chrystal, Eric Berry, Finlay Currie, Niall Macginnis
MPAA rating: Not rated
Studio: Pax Films-British Independent Exhibitors
First date: 1937
US DVD Release Date: 2003-12-09

Unlike most British cinema, the films of Michael Powell (1905-1990) are marked by lush, sometimes overpowering visual effects; passion for the erotic and excessively emotional; and a child-like addiction to jokes and private references. Most of all, his work reveals the unshakable conviction that film should overwhelm the audience with an artist's deliberately crafted vision.

The critic David Thomson, a fan and friend of the director, astutely referred to the visual symbol of an arrow striking a target -- the logo of Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Archer Films -- as an effective analogy for Powell's desire "to leave a nurturing wound." His films do just that. They leave their mark upon one's consciousness through an indelible sequence of intellectually challenging and emotionally enticing images.

That is not to say that Powell's ambitions always led to critical or commercial success. He was just as often lambasted for going visually and emotionally overboard as he was for beguiling the senses. The English critical establishment during Powell's heyday in the 1940s and 1950s more readily praised films that embodied good taste and refined sensibilities, and Powell rarely exercised the kind of sober and sensible methods that they esteemed. For example, his most famous film, The Red Shoes (1948), luxuriously visualizes a ballet dancer's dedication to her craft, arguing that a true artist suffers -- in this case, dies -- for her ambition. The film repelled as many as it delighted.

His most controversial work, Peeping Tom (1960), focused on an amateur filmmaker as a scopophiliac and sociopathic killer, led to his virulent rejection by the critical establishment and ended his commercial viability more or less for the rest of his life. Today, the film is regarded as one of the most unsettling and beautiful works of cinema, embodying Thomson's potent metaphor with a vengeance. Powell makes one identify and potentially sympathize with an unbalanced, at times reprehensible protagonist.

The Edge of the World (1937) shows us that sensibility in its primordial stage. It was the film that broke Powell out of the B movie ghetto of British film, known at the time as "quota quickies." The powerfully conceived narrative combines documentary elements with Powell's ability to find the symbolic in the everyday. The Edge of the World depicts the lives of the isolated inhabitants of the island of Foula, the northernmost inhabited site in the British Isles, imbuing their activities with a dimension bordering on the archetypal. For all the dirt on their fingers and brine in their hair, the characters seem almost mythic.

Milestone's exemplary DVD of The Edge of the World is drawn from the original 35mm negative as preserved by the British Film Institute Film & Television Archive. It includes a commentary by Ian Christie and Thelma Schoonmaker-Powell, his widow and Martin Scorsese's editor (the American director has done much to preserve and publicize Powell's work in recent years), as well as Daniel Day-Lewis reading passages from a book Powell wrote about the film's original production.

The DVD also features two extras: a 1979 documentary by Powell, returning to the site for reminiscence with the current inhabitants of Foula; and a short piece directed by Powell in support of the war effort in 1943, An Airman's Letter to his Mother. As the missive's words are read, Powell undercuts the potential sentimentality by panning his camera over the materials that lie about the deceased young man's room, evidence of life well lived, if mournfully cut short.

The Edge of the World also concerns loss, as it explores the relationship of James Gray (Niall MacGinnis) and Ruth Manson (Belle Chrystal), both dedicated to the harsh but rewarding life of their ancestors. Ruth's twin brother, Robbie (Eric Berry), on the other hand, has worked on the off-island fishing boats that threaten their way of life and has fallen in love with a non-native girl. James challenges him to a race up one of the island's cliffs. This sequence possesses particular resonance as the two actors performed it themselves. Shots of them posed on the knife-edge of the sheer rock remind one of the superiority of on-camera action to digital effects. Even beyond the action, Powell uses the event to reveal and distill his characters' values. The paths up the cliffside represent the differences in the young men: James takes a time-tested path while Robbie tries a dangerous alternative.

Still, the action is crucial to the narrative: Robbie's fatal fall during the contest leads to a falling out between the two families and a breach between the clan heads of the Mansons (John Laurie) and the Grays (Finlay Currie). James leaves the island for work on shore, and soon thereafter, Ruth learns she is pregnant. As much as her father disdains her romance, he cannot reject his grandchild, and the families bond over the birth. Ruth pines for James and needs him ever more when her child falls sick. The island lacks for experienced doctors, and the two fathers toss floating letters upon the sea in order to alert the mainland of the need for aid. The conclusion dramatizes how even a sense of being rooted in the land cannot compete with an environment that fails to offer the necessary financial compensation for backbreaking labor.

Melodramatic as the story's components might be, The Edge of the World grabs one's attention from first image to last, due to Powell's commitment to his material and evident affection for the characters and their surroundings. He shot the vast majority of the picture on location in Foula, and the images of the craggy, unadorned landscape take vivid advantage of a way of life untouched by the modern world. Some of the characters were cast from among the local residents, and they perform parts of the soundtrack, either in the form of fiddle-driven dance music or unaccompanied hymn recital.

As much as Powell emphasizes the romance of the inhabitants and environments of Foula, he never abandons how the elements and the economic system that surround them govern their lives. The film includes a fascinating sequence in which Laird (owner of the property to whom the islanders owe their livelihood) visits Foula in order to receive the outlay of wool and other products. James and the Laird discuss the encroaching impact of industrialization, but the sequence does not simply hold up the superiority of one way of life over the other. Powell is more broadminded, acknowledging the wisdom of change as much as he defends tradition. The Edge of the World celebrates commitment to tradition, showing how hard a path it can be, but also what makes technological advancement attractive. That even-handedness, combined with Powell's virtuosic filmmaking, makes for spectacular viewing.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image