Friday 6 April 2007

The Edge of the World (1937) Michael Powell

For purposes of this movie, the edge of the world is Shetland, the island that the Romans saw off in the distance beyond the Orkneys and called Ultima Thule. It was shot entirely on location on Foule, here known as Hirta, and it's deserted when some Leslie Howard-esque yacht owner puts in there, against the advice of Andrew Gray, who is obviously the real yachtsman on board. We soon discover that he used to live there and tells us of life ten years earlier when the people of the island relocated, not always happily, to the mainland. He lived on the island then, loved a girl called Ruth and raced her brother up a dangerous cliff to decide their futures.

Andrew Gray is Niall MacGinnis, looking very different from later in life when he was so memorable in films like Night of the Demon or even 49th Parallel. Because actual locals played most of the background characters, he other actor I know here is John Laurie, famed as Private Frazer in Dad's Army but looking much closer in ths film to the way he did two years earlier as a dour crofter in Hitchcock's version of The 39 Steps. He's Ruth's father, who leads the resistance to leave the island. The most important name though isn't an actor: it's director Michael Powell, who's only nine years into his career making films but obviously with plenty of skill already.

This film is rough, as it really ought to be given that it's detailing life on a remote Scots island, often more like a documentary than a movie. There are moments of poetry though, both in the visuals, courtesy of Powell's cinematic eye, and in the music, courtesy of the Glasgow Orpheus Choir. Especially fine to my mind were some of the long shots of geography and the double exposures to highlight thought or memory. It feels authentic and impressive, but how valuable the ethnography is I honestly don't know. However I can't think of many films where that would even be a potentiality!

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