The Edge of the World Review
Michael Powell's The Edge of the World was a significant turning point in the director's career after previously making a number of so-called "quota quickies" to help satisfy the British film industry's initiative to rival Hollywood at its domestic cinemas, at least in number if not quality. The 1937 film allowed the future Archer to create something more personal and lasting than the cheap diversions he'd been turning out previously. The result was a huge step toward his later work in which he would collaborate with Emeric Pressburger. It satisfied a desire owing to Powell's own sense of adventure and proved the director capable of creating a sort of rough cinematic poetry by way of nature.
Shot on Foula, a "lonely island" in the Shetlands, The Edge of the World is a story of resistance and the stubbornness of tradition. The setting is a fictional island called Hirta - based on the very real St. Kilda and actual incidents that occurred there. A brother (Eric Berry) and sister (Belle Chrystall) are good friends with another man (Niall MacGinnis) but a feud arises concerning the future of the island inhabitants. Their fathers (played, respectively, by John Laurie and Finlay Currie) also have differing views on how viable the community can remain. To settle the dispute, the young men compete in a dangerous climb atop the steep and brutal wave-crushed cliffs on the edge of the island as some sort of primal pissing contest. It ends in local tragedy, and hard feelings burn through the community. Dangers to the small population's continued existence then become so prominent that they are forced to move off of the island, a detail based in absolute fact from the story of what happened to St. Kilda.
Much of the beauty of the film is in Powell's handling of these locations. The story and plot elements, and especially the actors, feel secondary to the setting. To see a picture of this era using authentic exteriors is really quite remarkable. It doesn't entirely compute, the apparent anachronism of it all. Here's a 1937 film, in black and white, showing such extraordinary visuals far removed from a studio backlot, and now being consumed in high definition on a Blu-ray disc. It's quite wondrous, really. I don't know how you love classic films of this time period and not get excited by such events. The idea that these movies continue to breathe so vivaciously is nothing if not encouraging.
For more on The Edge of the World and its previous DVD release from the BFI, check out Gary Couzens' enjoyable write-up at this very site from a few years ago. Gary seems to cover all of the basics and I couldn't possibly disagree with any of it.
The BFI has now blessed the world with a region-free Blu-ray edition of Powell's film. It's a single-layered disc with basically the same extra features as found on the earlier DVD release.
The aspect ratio here is 1.37:1, matted for the Blu-ray. The included booklet notes that the high definition transfer was from the original nitrate 35mm negative and acetate finegrain elements. The image is really something to treasure. It retains a close to perfect amount of grain. Detail looks highly impressive for a film of its age. Only a few fluctuations in contrast stand out as anything resembling a flaw. The booklet further mentions "occasional instances of damage and instability" that remain, "particularly during sections involving optical transitions," but I didn't see anything at all over which to be concerned. This appears to be setting somewhat of a standard for films of this era on Blu-ray, meaning it's perhaps not as blazingly gorgeous an image as the Murnau discs put out by Masters of Cinema but there's a great deal to appreciate in increased clarity and depth from the DVD iteration. Run don't walk, as they say.
I heard some inoffensive crackle in the audio but nothing out of the ordinary realm of expectations. The English LPCM mono track holds its own in terms of strength of volume and how listenable it is overall. The track is not perfect, but it probably needn't be. It sounds, in truth, like a 1937 film shot on location that's now been given a high definition boost. Enjoy it and, if at all dissatisfied, compare it to the poor audio found in the film's trailer. Subtitles are optional in English for the hearing impaired. They are white in color.
Extra features are plentiful, which is nice considering the film is only 75 minutes. There's a commentary by Ian Christie and featuring Powell's widow, the Oscar-winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker, along with excerpts read from Michael Powell's book about the making of the film by Daniel Day-Lewis. The balance is good and it's a commentary well worth listening to for a number of reasons. Schoonmaker also speaks over some color home movies (6:51) taken by Powell on a trip, with friends and his dog, to the Scottish highlands in the 1950s.
There was a shorter version of the film re-released in 1944 and approved by Michael Powell. The additional shots comprising those alternative scenes have been included. They include an alternate opening (1:43) that now has the Archers' logo and other alternate sequences (7:11). There is no audio on these. Also here is the 1979 "Return to the Edge of the World" (23:45) made by Powell upon coming back to the island of Foula. He brings actor John Laurie with him to visit the new and remaining locals. It's nice to see the island in color after feeling like you've already explored it in black and white through the movie.
Also here is a travelogue to St. Kilda, entitled "St. Kilda - Britain's Loneliest Isle" (15:55) and made in the 1920s. There's optional commentary available on this silent short, which informs that it was probably shot for the most part in 1923 despite being released in 1928.
The main feature's original trailer (2:18) has been thrown in for good measure as well.
And who doesn't love a fine BFI booklet. Ian Christie provides an excellent essay and background piece on the film that runs for parts of 5 pages. A contemporary, 3-page review by C.A. Lejeune follows that was first published in The Schoolmaster and Woman Teacher's Chronicle, of all things. Then there are short biographical pieces on Powell and producer Joe Rock, plus some information on 10" x 8" bromide prints found at the BFI's Stills Collection that had been "colourised" by hand on the reverse side of the prints. All in all, the companion booklet here goes for 28 pages and also includes disc and film credits and an attractive collection of stills.