The Edge of the World (1937)

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.