The Edge of the World (1937)    2 Stars


The Edge of the World (1937)
The Edge of the World (1937)

Director: Michael Powell

Cast: Niall MacGinnis, Belle Chrystall, John Laurie

Synopsis: A way of life is dying on an Outer Hebridean island fishing port, but some of the inhabitants resist evacuating to the mainland.




The first major film from Michael Powell (of Powell and Pressburger’s The Archers fame), The Edge of the World somehow manages to marry a melodramatic tale of forbidden love with a haunting study of the inevitability of change. It was filmed on the remote British isle of Foula, and benefits immeasurably from breathtaking shots of the Isles’ rolling fields, craggy cliffs and turbulent coastline. There’s also a palpable sense of our connection to the past – superbly captured in a shot of the ghostly figures of the island’s former inhabitants filing past a present-day visitor – and of the way we humans have only a brief lease on a land which is timeless.

The island’s community is so tiny that it can’t even claim to have a town centre as such; it’s merely a loose collection of modest stone cottages, and the town elders don’t even have a town hall in which to gather, meeting instead upon rocks at the cliff’s edge. It is there that they debate village business, and ultimately come to the decision that failing crops means that life upon the island is no longer sustainable and that they must move to the mainland. Played out against this impending evacuation is a love affair between strapping young Andrew Gray (Niall MacGinnis – The Kremlin Letter, The Mackintosh Man) and improbably glamorous wee Scots lassie, Ruth (Belle Chrystall). Their relationship meets with the strong disapproval of Peter Manson (John Laurie, who was in The 39 Steps and The Black Knight, but whom most people will remember as the curmudgeonly Private Fraser in the BBC’s ever-popular Dad’s Army) following the death of his son, Robbie (Eric Berry – 49th Parallel, The Red Shoes) during a contest with Andrew to scale a cliff face without a rope.

It’s through these four characters that the conflicting opinions regarding the future of the island’s community are expressed, with the fate of the dour but sympathetic Peter proving to be inextricably entwined with that of the community. The theme of a dying community is a powerful one which is just as relevant today as it was in the 1930s, and if anyone was to make an effective, thought-provoking film out of such a tale (which was based on fact) Michael Powell was that man. But the nagging thought that perhaps Powell made the movie a little too early into his career persists: if he only had the experience of a few more major films under his belt The Edge of the World could have been a great movie instead of just a very good one.

(Reviewed 21st March 2015)

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