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‘Edge of the World’ Review: A British white man's burden, re-examined

Director Michael Huissman captures Borneo's beauty with the eye of Terence Malick while Jonathan Rhys Meyer's wrestles with the responsibility of becoming the country's first white Rajah.

James Brooke (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), Arthur Crookshank (Dominic Monaghan), Brooke's nephew Charley (Otto Farant) and Brooke's valet Subu (Shaheizy Sam) explore the flora and fauna of 1800s Borneo in 'Edge of the World'.
(Image: © Samuel Goldwyn)

Our Verdict

Working from a script by Rob Allyn, director Michael Huissman captures the beauty and complexity of this unique story of British imperialism.

For

  • 🌱 Meyers' intensity complicates Brooke's earnest intentions with the tribes of Borneo but amplifies the character's inner struggle.
  • 🌱 Cinematographer Jaime Feliu-Torres captures the lush beauty of the country with an uncommon, poetic beauty.

Against

  • 🌱 The script by Rob Allyn examines but doesn't quite reckon with the deeper sociocultural implications of Brooke's appointment as the first white Rajah.

Stories about British imperialism certainly dwarf the number of films cataloguing it across the globe, but that’s only because the country’s reach and control was so plentiful — and egregious. Michael Haussman’s Edge of the World rides on a very thin line between two increasingly familiar interpretations of this history, “civilizing the untamed world” narratives and those where “the natives were the ones doing the teaching all along,” but improbably, it maintains its balance while chronicling the true story of James Brooke and his installation as the Rajah of Sarawak. Jonathan Rhys Meyers occasionally leans towards melodrama as Brooke, a man eager to escape his past in Britain but unable to reckon a future fully embracing the violent customs of the country over which he comes to preside, but Haussman and cinematographer Jaime Feliu-Torres mostly overshadow the film’s parade of prosthetic severed heads with images so beautiful that Terrence Malick would (or should) be proud to call them his own.

Meyers plays Brooke, an India-born soldier eager to escape his life and responsibilities in Britain, including a military detail in the Bengal Army and young woman named Elizabeth (Hannah New) whom he impregnated before abandoning her at the altar. Sailing to Borneo (then Brunei), he, his friend Arthur (Dominic Monaghan) and his sister’s son Charley (Otto Farant) venture into the jungle to meet with the natives and make discoveries on behalf of the Queen. He soon meets two Princes, Bedruddin (Samo Rafael) and Makota (Bront Palarae), both eager to learn about him and his culture, albeit for different purposes; one aspires to learn from his cosmopolitan education, while the other seeks his military muscle to suppress a rebel uprising and pave a path to become Rajah. Astutely navigating the political intricacies of these two very different relationships, he eventually drives Makota into hiding and the Sultan (Wan Hanafi Su) appoints Brooke as the Rajah, the first such appointment for a white man.

Attempting to respect local customs while imposing the structure of British rule, Brooke becomes popular among the people of Brunei, and even takes as a lover Fatima (Atiqah Hasiholan), a native woman who helps him as a diplomat and translator. But when Makota begins making attacks on his compound, threatening peaceful locals and instigating tribal conflicts, Brooke prevails on Arthur and Charley to seek support from British military leaders such as Sir Edward Beech (Ralph Ineson), who can provide a ship and other munitions. But with little interest in understanding or respecting local tradition or culture, Beech eventually views Brooke’s rule as a prelude to claim Brunei under British rule, forcing Brooke to make a dangerous bargain to protect his people without inadvertently turning them over to the control of another dictatorial hand.

Even with the imprint of real historical events (much less Brooke’s literary legacy as inspiration for Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King and Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim), it’s hard in 2021 not to look at the story of a British soldier becoming Rajah of Sarawak as one — and unnecessary one at that — of white civilization taming another corner of the natural world. Screenwriter and producer Rob Allyn recently explored this idea in a different if more immediately relevant context in No Man’s Land, directed by his brother Conor and starring his other brother Jake, about a young Texan who flees justice into Mexico, discovering that foreign country’s beauty and humanity. Here, he tries to elide the Lawrence of Arabia comparisons by making Brooke educated about his new environment, keenly aware in every decision of the toes he’s stepping between to navigate his path, and also broadly troubled about the wanderlust that brought him to this geographic and existential crossroads. What Allyn unfortunately ends up doing is pushing the character into Conrad’s Marlow (or more accurately, Willard in Apocalypse Now) territory as Brooke comes to understand, and eventually succumbs to the violent madness of his native environment, after his initial admiration and affection for Brunei, its people and its culture.

Part of the problem is that Meyers seems permanently haunted as Brooke, from the first time we see him stepping on the shores of Sarawak to the moment of his final act of violence, commemorating his commitment to a country the movie doesn’t quite spend enough time asking if he should be ruling any part of, regardless of how “respectfully” he does so. The movie thankfully transforms as its story unfolds, rushing slightly through some of the events that lead to his anointment as Rajah but eventually arriving at a more measured examination of the challenge of protecting Sarawak by using the military might bestowed upon him by the British crown, and later, from that same power as Beech lusts after the territory on behalf of his Queen’s sovereignty. The script’s progressive nods (historically validated or no) to Sarawak woman’s sexual and intellectual empowerment, not to mention Brooke’s unambiguous endorsement of such attitudes, the story eventually settles into an interesting dialectic between the two countries’ approaches to diplomacy, with the tribes of Brunei beheading their adversaries on one side, and Britain’s condescending, oppressive entitlement on the other.

That said, Meyer’s pedigree, from Velvet Goldmine to Match Point, gives him the right kind of slippery intangibility as Brooke, earnest in his desire to honor the people he rules but wrestling with the twin demons of practiced responsibility and irrepressible instinct; if anything, he occasionally give too much as the character, without clarifying exactly what he’s seeking in this verdant, mysterious land, far away from the purview of the British military. Rafael and Palarae play opposite sides of the coin he’s constantly flipping in Brunei — the former adoring his wisdom, the latter conniving to exploit it — but Palarae in particular makes Makota intriguing as an adversary even when he’s not on screen, conveying a quality that evokes late actor Irrfan Khan that deftly balances intellect and authority, a sense of kindness and menace all at once. Atiqah Hasiholan offers real dimensionality as Fatima, a consort with the perspective and gravitas to be Brooke’s equal, but more baffling is Josie Ho’s role as Madame Lim, another of his confidantes (and possible lovers) who contributes a bit of star wattage when the film hits Chinese shores but not much else.

Working with cinematographer Feliu-Torres, Haussman, possibly best known for his music videos for Madonna, Kanye West and Jennifer Lopez, captures the beauty of Borneo in some truly magical ways, shooting Brooke’s boats (and eventually the man himself) underwater as he immerses himself in this foreign land while trying to preserve his identity. Additionally, Will Bates’ music, utilizing work from classical composer Claude Debussy, gives the film a rousing, and operatic quality. Ultimately it’s for the viewer to decide if the film fully honors James Brooke as a colonizer who truly respects the people he eventually ruled (notably, for more than 20 years and two more generations), or whose personal demons imperceptibly complicated the British military’s familiar pattern of conquering and converting territories. But as a story that at least possesses the self-awareness to ask questions about the relationship between British exploration and the men who served (even indirectly) as agents of it, Edge of the World offers an intriguing history lesson in a well-acted and uniquely beautiful package.

Edge of the World hits theaters June 21, 2021.