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 (later to be known as Sir 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 found himself quickly engulfed in the conflicts raging on the island. His newfound friendship with Pangeran Muda Hashim, leading him into battle against rebellious indigenous tribes. These actions would lead the Sultan of Brunei to offer Brooke the governorship of Sarawak (Borneo) in 1841. Accepting the offer, Brooke would rule as the first White Rajah of Sarawak from 1841 until he died in 1868. But 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.
Although he did have a series of affairs with women, Brooke never married, and it is widely believed that he had more than a fleeting interest in men. His handwritten diaries highlighting several possible male partners during his life. A life that would inspire both Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim and Kipling’s short story The Man Who Would Be King. However, despite a story rich in subject matter, Brooke’s journey to the screen has not been easy. In 1936 Errol Flynn’s proposed Warner Brother’s film The White Rajah failed to progress from page to screen. And since then, studios have shown little interest in Brooke until Edge of the World.
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.
Brooke’s Journey is full of contradictions; on the one hand, he fought against classic British models of imperialism. And yet, on the other hand, 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, despite this, Haussman never has the time needed to explore Brooke’s actions and inactions thoroughly. While at the same time, Rob Allyn’s screenplay never quite captures 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. His relationship with Prince Badruddin (Samo Rafael) delicately skirting any outright discussions on his potential sexual interest in men. And while this fully reflects the historical unknowns, a more full-bodied exploration could have offered the film something fresh and unique. In exploring the colonial ambitions of a man who also needed to escape the rigid and oppressive social structures of Britain. After all, escape plays a significant role in Brooke’s story, from his wish to travel to his desire to create a community built on his own values and ideals.
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 as we are led to a final act that sees Brooke finally understand his place and purpose. His arrogance his downfall as he becomes the man he thought he could avoid. However, once again, the film’s runtime is the biggest hurdle in recounting this journey. Here, time moves too fast, and characters are not allowed to develop fully. And by the end, one can’t help but feel that a mini-series would have been preferential in capturing the complexity of Brooke’s story. However, that does not distract from the sheer beauty Edge of the World offers us; it just makes the final film a relatively simple and sadly forgettable historical journey.