The Edge of the World

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Filmed in black and white on the remote island of Foula, The Edge of the World (1937) is the first film by British director Michael Powell (1905-90) to foreshadow his more mature, richly idiosyncratic visions such as I Know Where I’m Going (1945) and Black Narcissus (1947). Powell directed 25 films in the five years leading up to Edge but they were all "quota quickies," cheap and generally unmemorable films made because British theaters were required by law to show a certain amount of homegrown product.

But Edge was a film that Powell had nurtured for years and, though it’s not as technically smooth or even as coherent as his later ones, it still has what was to become his trademark mix of visually abstracted naturalism, unemphasized mysticism and unexpected eroticism. It’s like an anthropological tone poem.

The movie tells of the economic death of the small island of Hirta (the fictional name for Foula), of how changing times force its small population of 100 or so fisherman, shepherds and their families to eventually evacuate to the mainland. Hirta is an island of precipitous cliffs rising directly out of the sea and the most common form of unnatural death is an accidental fall, leaving one with a small tombstone inscribed with the words "Gone Over." Traditionally, conflicts between young men on the island were resolved by ropeless rock climbing contests, and it’s a tragic example of this primitive macho rite which sets the film’s plot in gear.

It’s a pretty soapy plot, too, though it hardly matters. More to the point are the distinct Powell touches, like the overhead shot of two lovers lounging sensuously near the deadly drop of a cliff edge or the vertiginous beauty of the two climbing episodes.

The film is rough-hewn – Powell admitted that his hours of footage were shaped by Derek Twist in the editing room – but even imperfect Powell makes for a strangely moving experience.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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