The Edge of the World
Daniel Day-Lewis is one of cinema's greatest working actors. That said, he's also something of an eccentric. After winning the Oscar for best actor in My Left Foot in 1989, he worked for directors Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, Nicholas Hynter, and Jim Sheridan but his output was sporadic, and he seemed uninterested in becoming a marquee player in Hollywood (Lewis turned down the role of Aragon in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films) even though he's often voted one of Hollywood's sexiest stars, among other such banalities. Known for his dedication and commitment to acting, Day-Lewis will get so far into his roles that he will ask cast and crew members to address him by his character's name, both on and off the set. But after 1997, he dropped from sight for five years, only to return for Scorsese's Gangs of New York (2002) after Harvey Weinstein lured him away from Florence, Italy, where he was apprenticing as a cobbler (one can only imagine having an Oscar-winner fixing your Doc Martens). Thus, it's odd to have this peculiar talent appear on the audio commentary of Michael Powell's 1938 picture The Edge of the World, reading excerpts from Powell's book on the making of the film, 200,000 Feet on Foula. Perhaps it's Day-Lewis's friendship with Martin Scorsese, who "presents" the title in this release, or perhaps he's just a big fan of Powell, one of best directors who's better known among cinephiles than the public at large. Whatever the case, his presence is a welcome addition to a fine early Michael Powell project about a community's struggle to survive. The Edge of the World takes place on the Scottish island of Hirta the story is told in flashback when ex-Hirta resident Andrew Gray (Niall MacGinnis) takes a couple (played by the director and his future wife Frankie Reidy) to the island and tells of how it became both deserted and cursed. Problems start when Robbie Manson (Eric Berry) returns to Hirta after working elsewhere, and now he can't stop butting heads with both his family and Andrew he wants to leave the island for good. But the community needs every member it has, since their population is slowly dwindling. To keep Robbie on the island, Andrew challenges him to a rock-climbing contest that ends tragically. After that comes problems between Andrew and his girlfriend Ruth (Belle Chrystall), who was the twin sister of Robbie, as well as her father Peter (John Laurie), who also didn't want Robbie to leave and can't forgive Andrew. Soon Andrew abandons Hirta, a move complicated by the fact that the community desperately needs his presence, and that Ruth is now pregnant with his child. Things only get worse when the inhabitants discover they can only spend one more year on their island home.
* * *
Though Michael Powell had been directing films for ten years by the time he did The Edge of the World, this is the first of his efforts where he found his voice; as Powell called it, it was his "first independent picture." He was working from a story he'd been familiar with, ever since hearing about the desertion of Hebridean isle of St. Kilda in 1930. The community had to get a grant from the government because they were no longer able to sustain themselves on their island, and from this rich story Powell wrote the screenplay himself and then took his cast to the Scottish Isle of Foula, where the film was shot. Such events link Powell with some naturalist directors of the time, including Robert Flaherty a comparison Powell always hated. But the project also established Powell as a filmmaker bent on authenticity, to the point that he became (what fellow DVD Journal contributor D.K. Holm terms) a "location masochist." And masochism isn't too far from the truth, since the crew had to have their food, water and everything else shipped to the island. The Edge of the World has a great naturalistic quality, and though its rock-climbing stunt turns fatal in the story, the scenic beauty is impressive. That said, Powell was even more interested in the nature of a social microcosm in decay, and though each character does his part to foster that dissolution, either by a stubborn devotion to tradition or a rush to abandon the community, no one person is responsible for the demise.
For a character like Peter Manson, leaving the island is an unacceptable outcome, which is why the film remains a compelling vision of a world that will be lost.
Image Entertainment and Milestone Films have released The Edge of the World from a restored print that's presented full frame (1.33:1 OAR) and with monaural audio. The source material contains some collateral wear but for the most part it's acceptable, while the soundtrack is in good shape and the narrative is never lost. The release is a mixed blessing we're fortunate that much of the film has survived at all, since it was edited down from its original 81-min. running-time to 62 min. for a 1940 reissue. This current version runs 75 min. Extras include the commentary track with Daniel Day-Lewis, Powell's widow (and Scorsese's current editor) Thelma Schoonmaker, and film theorist Ian Christie; the latter three cover much of the production and the film's importance in Powell's body of work, while Lewis interjects with excerpts from Powell's book. Also included is Powell's patriotic six-min. short "An Airman's Letter to His Mother" (1941) and his documentary Return to the Edge of the World (1978), wherein Powell and cast members Hugh Laurie, Grant Sutherland, and Frankie Reidy return to Foula, the Scottish island where they shot the film. Also included (for DVD-ROM players) are the original and re-release press-books. Keep-case.