Review: The Edge of the World : A tale which speaks to new generations still battling many of the same issues
Reviewed by Nick Smith
One of the key films of Faclan 2017 is the 1937 film The Edge of the World, fittingly subtitled “Ultima Thule”. The effort invested in the film by director Michael Powell alongside his cast and crew make this an important part of British cinema history, even without reference to the plot. Filming on Foula in the late 1930s was a triumph of determination with no flights, intermittent radio communication, and the need, before their months of work could begin, for the crew to build their own accommodation.
Their reward was the opportunity to capture stunning images of Foula’s landscapes and wildlife in the context of a story of love, traditions, and depopulation recognisable eighty years later. Foula becomes Hirta, in real life the major island of the St Kilda archipelago, although the plot relies on Foula’s true location in the Shetlands.
Robbie Manson returns to his island home of Hirta engaged to a Norwegian woman and announces his plan to leave permanently, to the shock of both his father and Andrew Gray, Robbie’s best friend and his sister Ruth’s sweetheart. Arguing over a proposal to evacuate the islanders to the mainland, Andrew and Robbie try to settle the issue in traditional manner with a race up the cliffs, which results in Robbie’s death.
Blaming Andrew for the tragedy, Peter Manson refuses him permission to marry Ruth. Andrew leaves for Lerwick, intending never to return, but after a short while Peter makes a shocking discovery. The repercussions for his family are mirrored by a wider debate in their island community which has the potential for permanent change in their lives.
Michael Powell captures life on the margins at what would become a critical moment just before the start of the Second World War and the changes to society which followed. Alongside Foula’s stunning landscapes of sunshine and storm we see cattle driven across the island, sheep rescued from cliffs by rope, and flour ground on quern stones. The islanders’ houses and furniture may have looked familiar to some of Powell’s audience elsewhere in Britain, but the memory was soon to fade.
Magnificent performances by John Laurie as Peter Manson – whose love for his land shines passionately – and Belle Chrystall as the committed and slightly impetuous Ruth Manson lend the ultimate tragedy of The Edge of the World real weight. The risks Powell took in his passion project pay off with a tale which speaks to new generations still battling many of the issues he raised.