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On Hirta, No Man Is an Island
Newsday; 13th Jan 2000; John Anderson
(3 1/2 stars) The Edge of the World. (U) Michael Powell's early masterpiece (1937) is a reverie masquerading as naturalism, about a remote Hebrides island that can no longer support its small race of people. With Niall MacGinnis, Belle Chrystall, John Laurie, Finlay Currie. Written and directed by Michael Powell. 1:21. At Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St., Manhattan.
Rarely seen and rarefied, Michael Powell's "The Edge of the World" so impressed producer Alexander Korda in 1937 that he introduced Powell to screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, helping to found one of the movies' great collaborations, the Archers. Powell-Pressburger were responsible for one of the strongest filmographies in the history of the cinema, including "I Know Where I'm Going," "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp," "49th Parallel," "A Matter of Life and Death" (aka "Stairway to Heaven"), "The Red Shoes" and "Black Narcissus."
That last film, set among the nosebleed- and psychosis-inducing Himalayas, may be the most obviously influenced by "The Edge of the World," which takes place atop, below and beside the daunting cliffs of a remote Scottish island called Hirta (or "death"). But "The Edge of the World" is full of other Powell trademarks, from an ethereal sense that gravity has been suspended, to the majesty of Powell's declarative imagery to the sheer joy of living possessed by his characters (a very "Blimp"-ish quality), even when faced with tragedy and need.
The people of Hirta are struggling to support themselves on an island where the waters are over-fished and the soil is played out, and at least one islander-Robbie Manson (Eric Berry) - has decided not to bring his wife-to-be back, but to move to the mainland himself. Andrew Gray (Niall MacGinnis), who's in love with Robbie's sister, Ruth (Belle Chrystall), quarrels with Robbie about his decision, and they decide to settle things according to island tradition: a race up the impossible cliffs of Hirta.
Robbie falls to his death, Ruth's father (John Laurie) blames Andrew, Andrew leaves the island and Ruth turns out to be pregnant. Crises ensue.
Parable-like in its simplicity/profundity, "The Edge of the World" opens with Andrew returning to the now-evacuated island and relating its story to his shipmates. Not till later, of course, does the impact of Andrew's return make itself fully felt. But when it does, don't be surprised if it's accompanied by an urge to visit Hirta one more time.
© 2000, Newsday Inc.