One of the most unassumingly solid directors of Britain’s early period (and, with 1960’s astonishing Peeping Tom, its middle period as well), Michael Powell entered the golden age of his career with The Edge of the World. Though he had already made over 20 films, it represented one of his first successfully realized and (perhaps more importantly) self-actualized stabs at what would become one of his chief directorial strengths: the ability to film a very specific and localized environment in a manner that emphasizes its otherworldly fantasias and, paradoxically, remains faithful to the area’s ethnographical features. To watch The Edge of the World is to bear witness to Powell’s unique alchemy, as he infuses his setting—a weather-battered island community off the coast of Scotland on the verge of abandonment—with off-kilter camera angles, dreamily gauzy cinematography and a becalmed detachment that lets the characters and scenario do the work for him. Which is not to say that Powell occasionally indulges in a few melodramatic flourishes that he managed to avoid in later masterpieces like I Know Where I’m Going and Black Narcissus. For instance, he superimposes a montage of mournful reminiscences over a character’s thoughtful close-up not once but twice. And, for all the near documentary-like attitudes Powell the director exercises when filming the island’s close-knit community, Powell the screenwriter too often lapses into overly plotty solutions to various conflicts (he hadn’t yet joined forces with his future compadre in archery Emeric Pressburger). But in general, The Edge of the World is rife with the sort of miraculously unforced moments of enchantment one has always come to expect from the United Kingdom’s most underrated auteur.
As it says in the press release, Milestone and the BFI collaborated on a brand-spanking new digital transfer of the film from the original negative, and the results are basically wonderful. Though they stopped short of the sort of digital restoration that, say, Criterion performed on The Passion of Joan of Arc and L'Avventura (meaning that there are occasional blemishes, tears and black frames), the film still looks quite sharp for its age. As can be expected, the soundtrack aged a little bit faster than the picture, but even so it's a lot less shrill and distorted than one might expect. The poignant musical score by Cyril Ray is surprisingly full.
Image comes up with a well-rounded spate of extra features, including the obligatory commentary track, though this one is blessed with the knowledgeable Ian Christie's take on the film. He's also joined by Powell's widow and Martin Scorsese's current film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who comes off a bit cheerleader-like, but still sincere and insightful. Daniel Day-Lewis drops in occasionally to orate from Powell's memoirs. An exemplary yak-track. Also included are two short films by Powell. The first is a brief bit of jingoistic WWII propaganda in which a mother tears up over an "I died defending my country" letter from her son. It's left unclear whether she cries for his death or his apparent brainwashing from military service. The other, 1978's Return to the Edge of the World, is a winning stab at a sort of essay film-lite format in which Powell and John Laurie (and various other crew members from the original Edge of the World) come back to the island of Foula to reminisce and wax all poetic-like. It's charming and mysterious, and also happens to be the last film Powell ever directed. Rounding out the set are press kits and photo galleries.
The always respectful ethnographer in Michael Powell transforms the melodrama of his own scenario into an epic death knell for a forgotten island civilization.