The Edge of the World Blu-ray Review: Director Michael Powell’s First Masterpiece

Even before he partnered with Emeric Pressburger and made some of the most ravishing British films, the legendary Michael Powell was already a considerable and imaginative filmmaker with a penchant to craft powerful stories of humanity. His thoroughly heartfelt, early directorial work The Edge of the World (1937) is truly his first masterpiece.

Shot entirely on the island of Foula, the film tells the deceptively simple yet profound story of a working-class community, but more importantly, the lives of Ruth (Belle Chrystall), her brother Robbie (Eric Berry), and her love Andrew (Niall MacGinnis), the only three youths left on the island. Peter wants to leave the island against the wishes of everyone for a significantly more modern life. So, he and Andrew run a dangerously foolish race to the top of the hills to see whose opinion will prevail. It leads to tragedy, not just for Ruth, Andrew, her headstrong father Peter Manson (played brilliantly by John Laurie), and Andrew’s own father James Gray (Finlay Currie), but their entire community when they all realize that their way of life has come to an end, and that they have to say goodbye to their once thriving, beloved island.

Again, the premise of the film is pretty straightforward with themes of hardship and determination that are universal. What unfolds is equal parts romantic, sad, poetic, and depressing. Sometimes it looks like a documentary, depicting the nearly impossible daily lives of its spirited characters.

It is beautifully shot by Powell and cinematographers Monty Berman, Ernest Palmer, and Skeets Kelly. It feels almost like a dream, especially with the music (and chorus) guiding the film along. All the performances, especially from Laurie, are genuinely moving and unpretentious. You could easily believe that the actors were all playing themselves, which made their portrayals all the more human, as well as the grounded center of it all.

For me, The Edge of the World was a revelation, and not surprisingly, a stepping stone to the extraordinary career that Powell would have, including his groundbreaking work with Pressburger. Hopefully, his lyrical, fully realized portrait of a specific way of life crossing over will also be a surprise to other film lovers as well.

Special features include alternative scenes; original trailer; audio commentary with famed editor Thelma Schoonmaker (Powell’s wife), film historian Ian Christie, and actor Daniel Day-Lewis reading from Powell’s book on the film’s creation; Return to the Edge of the World (1979), a featurette of Powell with cast and crew returning to Foula; An Airman’s Letter to his Mother (1941), Powell’s WWII-era short film; and Powell’s Home Movies, narrated by Schoonmaker.

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