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  Edge of the World, The Don't Look Down
Year: 1937
Director: Michael Powell
Stars: John Laurie, Belle Chrystall, Eric Berry, Kitty Kirwan, Finlay Currie, Niall MacGinnis, Grant Sutherland, Campbell Robson, George Summers
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 2 votes)
Review: A boat sails towards the island of Hirta, a place the Romans called the edge of the world millennia ago, which for all that time had a fishing and sheep raising community there. Not any more, however, as the modern era has caught up with it and now the island is deserted, although it still recieves visitors from time to time, as here are two of them, academics brought here by Andrew (Niall MacGinnis), who used to live there until the evacuation occured ten years before. As they wander the isolated land, they reach one of the towering cliffs and see a grave marker there... and Andrew remembers.

Michael Powell had been directing films for a few years before he made The Edge of the World, but this was considered the first of his works to show his genuine authorship as one of the most distinctive voices in British cinema. Taking its cue from Robert Flaherty's largely staged, and then recent, documentary Man of Aran, Powell took his cast and crew even further afield for this, to the Shetland Islands and a story that was based in fact, as the communities of this harsh environment did indeed have to leave many of their homes when their livelihood there became impossible to sustain as the fishing and farming there fell out of favour.

The film captured many striking images of the island, with its cliffs rising what look like a mile above the crashing waves below, but this was a human tale and we were not allowed to forget it, mainly because it lays on the tragic elements pretty thickly. There's a love story here which sees twins Robbie (Eric Berry) and Ruth (Belle Chrystall) clash with Andrew when Robbie announces that he will be leaving Hirta because there is no future there, and Andrew, who is engaged to Ruth, tells him that he is wrongheaded in that assumption. This results in a macho contest to prove who is right, and the both of them opt to go for that ancient way of settling differences, the ascent of one of the cliff faces.

Well, you can see where that's going to lead, as the two men are backed by the locals who love a good rivalry such as this one, so actually escort them by boat to the foot of the bluff, and set them off on their course to the top. Robbie's father (John Laurie) is one of those who assisted him, which makes what occurs all the more wrenching for him, that's right, Robbie takes a tumble and dies; oddly, the landscape we see positively invites bodies to fall over those precipices, and when later on Ruth stands atop one and gazes out to sea, you could be forgiven for thinking she was about to take a step into the unknown.

I suppose the islanders have learned to live with the impulse that many people get when they stand over a high drop and feel the need to jump off, not that they act on it, but as Andrew glumly points out, falling over the side was all too common in those parts. If anything, you may be surprised that a community lasted so long on Hirta, or St Kilda as it represented, but don't go thinking this is all dour Scots and occasional authentic accents, as there are moments of levity too. Although attending the kirk is a Sunday tradition, where a sermon lasting an hour and a quarter is something to aspire to, they do like a sing-song and let their hair down at times. It's just that with such an ominous feeling of fate hanging over them, and such plot points as Ruth's baby contracting diptheria when the storms are at their worst and no doctor available to them, that the film can be a sobering, stark experience. But some audiences can appreciate that.

[The BFI Blu-ray of this title is especially crisp and vivid, and includes as special features Powell's follow up documentary, made over forty years later.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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