Around the same time as her documentary breakthrough Dreams of a Life, the filmmaker Carol Morley dipped a toe into fiction territory. There's an obvious continuity between Dreams and Morley's latest release, the ensemble drama Edge: the two projects display an incidental fetish for wallpaper and newsprint - materials that fade like memories - and they share a focus on individuals who, even when they're thrown together with others, remain somehow alone, desperately in need of connections, or leads to be followed up. Edge borrows its mosaic format from Grand Hotel (there's a Garbo reference), but has been assembled in an altogether less lavish location, as befits a lowish-budget Brit feature: an out-of-season establishment at what seems the snowiest, northernmost edge of the world - though an end credit thanks the proprietors of a real-life hotel down in Eastbourne. (Which is, how you say, movie magic.)
The guests are a diverse bunch: a pair of young online hook-ups (Joe Dempsie and Nichola Burley), meeting face-to-face to negotiate the next stage of their relationship; a cranky old dear (Marjorie Yates, from Terence Davies' The Long Day Closes), apparently hellbent on self-sacrifice; a guitar-touting jack-the-lad (Paul Hilton), who claims to have had a Top 40 hit, but now spends his time harassing allcomers in the hotel's cafe-bar; and an almost mute woman (Maxine Peake), who checks in under the name of a girl who threw herself off an adjacent cliff some time before. Slowly, the connections sought are made - there's a lot of rifling through other people's personal belongings, a sense of wanting to know them without wanting them to know - and, as the snow outside thaws, defences come to be, if not lowered entirely, then certainly eroded, like the shoreline by the tide.
The mosaic form remains one of the trickiest to make both satisfying and dramatically credible, rather than clunky or contrived-seeming: even Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose Amores Perros was one of the past decade's standout cinematic achievements, came unstuck with last year's hectoring and heavy-handed Biutiful. Edge, a less kaleidoscopic venture, proves more involving, but we're aware we're watching four or five intriguing yet distinct short films being spliced together, and sometimes you can hear the crunch of gears between scenes. The tone varies from ice-cold existential despair (the Peake strand) to darkly comic Alan Bennettisms, as in Yates's description of the man who ran off with her husband: "He was partial to my mixed grill".
And while there's not a duff performance in sight, some you instinctively want to see more of: most notably, the ever-excellent Burley, who works through evasiveness to explosive fury and an eventual softening, and appears real at every step along the way. (By contrast, it seems a pity that Julie T. Wallace, as the hotel's manageress, has nothing much to do save sign everybody else in and assemble the symbolic jigsaw by which the film elects to describe itself.) Maybe its tactic of following one outpouring with another needed more careful variation, and the final coming together is dependent on a photograph I think we really need to see, but for a low-budget debut feature, Edge is always underpinned by a steely grasp of character and place: it teeters on the edge of disintegration, and - to its credit - never quite gives way.
Edge opens in selected cinemas from Friday, and is available on DVD from Monday.