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Submitted by Nicky Smith

The Edge of the World (1937)
Review of the BFI DVD

Daily Telegraph - Sat 10th Jan 2004
By: Philip Horne

"Don't tell anyone. I'm a poet. A poet is not without honour, except in his own country." So, in 1978, said Michael Powell, now widely recognised as probably the greatest British filmmaker who didn't go to Hollywood. He says it to camera, with a twinkle, in a charmingly characteristic piece of autobiography, Return to the Edge of the World, a BBC documentary framing his 1937 feature and included on this marvellously authoritative and intimate DVD edition of what was his first great film.

The DVD is authoritative and intimate for many reasons - a fine restored print, footage from Powell's wonderfully vivid home movies, a lovely little biography of the film's enlightened American producer Joe Rock - but perhaps above all because of the participation of the leading Powell scholar Ian Christie and of Powell's widow, Martin Scorsese's editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. It is she who remarks on the commentary that "the film is really a poem about an island". And indeed The Edge of the World (the title translates the Roman phrase "Ultima Thule"), a fictionalised retelling of the evacuation of the Hebridean island of St Kilda in 1929, constitutes an elegy to a lost way of life.

Powell had for six years been turning out "quota quickies" (ultra-cheap British subjects to meet the legal quota of home production), little films to which he gave a glow of wit and inventiveness. That experience shows in the wonderful cinematic fluency of The Edge of the World, his first really personal project; but what also shines through is that his initiation into the movies, his passion for them, pre-dated the advent of sound.

He had tasted greatness at MGM's Victorine Studios in Nice, with Rex Ingram, maker of the visionary Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921). The visual imagination at work in The Edge of the World, as his stirringly eloquent memoirs A Life in Movies and Million Dollar Movie confirm, derives its inspiration from the language of the silent cinema. The extraordinary, moving sequence near the start, for instance, is a technical and artistic achievement of rare delicacy. The narrator Andrew Gray (Niall McGinnis), returning to the island of Hirta after the tragic events and the evacuation, stands by a ruined cottage as the ghosts of the village walk past him, transparent yet actually responding to him. They shift their pace as they pass and look him in the face. As Schoonmaker points out, it recalls the poetic expressiveness of silent cinema at its best.

Powell wrote the script himself - this was before his glorious collaboration with the Hungarian Emeric Pressburger and their work as "The Archers" - and his humour and lively feeling for individual character ensure that the Romantic vision of natural grandeur and the epic scope of the narrative don't overwhelm the human situation at its heart.

The opening title declares that "the slow shadow of death is falling on the outer isles of Scotland"; and the tragic passions of the main characters in the tiny Hirta community are in part responses to the inexorable effects of modernity on even this remote island.

On Hirta, as they are finally brought to accept, and as they tell their laird, "life as our fathers knew it is no longer possible". Powell is no Marxist, unlike Eisenstein before him and Visconti after, and has a lighter, less doctrinaire touch, but there are moments when his stoical, primitive people, framed with intense dignity in the landscapes and seascapes that so closely define their lives, recall the Mexican peasants of Que Viva Mexico! or the Italian fishermen of La Terra Trema.

The film may sound too worthy to be fully pleasurable, but in fact it is thrilling - because of the newly liberated cinematic imagination Powell took, along with his courageous team, to Foula in the Shetlands for the shoot. (It's recorded in Powell's own vivid book, 200,000 Feet on Foula, 1938, recently reissued by Faber as Edge of the World: The Making of a Film.)

Powell has an acute sense for the mountainous waves, the shifting clouds, the drenching rains, the wind-buffeted grasses, the scurrying of sheep over steep hilltops. He dramatises the stunning cliffscapes and wild seas of Foula partly through his arresting choice of angles, but partly too by inducing his actors to perform hair-raising stunts. There is thus a rare conviction to the doom-laden scenes in which the characters - even the one played by John Laurie, later famous as Private Frazer in Dad's Army - really scramble up and down the vast, vertiginous rock faces far above the crashing Atlantic.

The Edge of the World is a great British film about the extremes of nature; but it engages us just as much through Powell's sympathy with the people who barely survive - or perish - amid those hardships

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