Edge of the World arrives on all major digital platforms on June 21st through Signature Entertainment.
In 1839, a retired soldier of the East India Company arrived on the northern shores of Borneo with a small crew in tow. His name was James Brooke. Brooke was born in India in 1803, and following injuries sustained in the First Burmese War of 1824, he had become fascinated by the Malay Archipelago. This fascination led Brooke to use his inheritance to purchase a schooner named The Royalist – his travels born from a desire to escape the trappings of the British Empire.
The Malay Archipelago was ruled by the Sultan of Brunei, whose princes governed indigenous cultures through a mix of deal-making, protection and oppression. On arrival, Brooke would find himself quickly engulfed in the conflicts raging on the island. Here his newfound friendship with Pangeran Muda Hashim would lead him into a battle against rebellious indigenous tribes. These actions would result in the Sultan of Brunei offering Brooke the governorship of Sarawak (Borneo) in 1841. After accepting the offer, Brooke became the first White Rajah of Sarawak in 1841. However, was Brooke a visionary political statesman and peacemaker or a British colonial enforcer in disguise? This question surrounds Brooke’s time as a Rajah, while his private life also courts discussion.
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While he had a series of affairs with women, Brooke never married, and it is widely believed that he had more than a fleeting interest in men. Here his handwritten diaries highlight several possible male partners during his life – his life the inspiration for both Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim and Kipling’s short story The Man Who Would Be King.
Directed by Michael Haussman (The Audition), Edge of the World has a lot of ground to cover in a somewhat limited runtime of 1hr and 44mins. Here, Rob Allyn’s screenplay duly takes us from Brooke’s (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) arrival in Borneo alongside Arthur Crookshank (Dominic Monaghan) and Charlie (Otto Farrant) to his clash with the British and the opposing local tribes fighting for supremacy. And herein lies one of Edge of the World’s most significant problems – its ability to capture the nuance and complexity of Brooke’s story.
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Brooke’s journey is full of contradictions; on the one hand, he fought against classic British models of imperialism. Yet, one could argue that he believed in his own superiority as a white saviour of indigenous people. While at the same time bringing his own perspectives of Britishness to a country that never asked for his input. Haussman’s film attempts to explore some aspects of this contradiction, with Rhys Meyers’ stunning performance embedded in self-doubt, internal conflict, and external guilt. However, Haussman never has the time to thoroughly explore Brooke’s actions and inactions, particularly the multifaceted reality of British colonialism or the arrogance and superiority at its heart.
Meanwhile, themes of Brooke’s sexuality, while present, never find a defining voice. Here his relationship with Prince Badruddin (Samo Rafael) is void of any outright discussions on his potential sexual interest in men. While this fully reflects the historical unknowns, a more full-bodied exploration could have offered the film something fresh and unique.
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Haussman takes clear inspiration from Apocalypse Now and The Lost City of Z in recounting Brooke’s story. The cinematography is stunning, and the performances are exquisite. However, the film’s limited runtime is the biggest challenge in recounting his journey. But while a TV mini-series would have been a preferable format, this weakness does not distract from the sheer beauty of Edge of the World.