Producers: Rob Allyn, Josie Ho and Conroy Chan Director: Michael Haussman Screenplay: Rob Allyn Cast: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Dominic Monaghan, Atiqa Hasiholan, Otto Farrant, Samo Rafael, Bront Palarae, Shaheizy Sam, Hannah New, Yusuf Mahardika, Peter John, Kahar Bin Jini, Ralph Ineson and Josie Ho Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Rob Allyn is an ambitious fellow. Not long ago the actor-turned-producer was the producer and co-writer of “No Man’s Land,” which took on, though with only marginal success, the crisis at the southern U.S. border and the personal biases that underlie it. Now he attempts a “Lawrence of Arabia”-style inquiry into the psyche of Sir James Brooke, a nineteenth-century British adventurer who was granted suzerainty by the sultan of Brunei over the region of Sarawak on the island of Borneo and ruled there as Rajah for more than a quarter-century, bringing reform and relative stability to the region.
The screenplay by Allyn doesn’t attempt a full biography, however. Though captions at the end sketch his later life, the film covers just the years from the late 1830s to the early 1840s, when Brooke, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, arrived on Borneo along with his cousin Arthur (Dominic Monaghan) and nephew Charley (Otto Farrant) on a schooner, the Royalist, that he had purchased with his inheritance and proceeded to finagle his way to a position of political power in the island’s northwest.
Brooke, who had already come to question British imperialist methods during his involvement in the East India Company and had suffered financial setbacks in attempts to profit from maritime trade, arrived in Sarawak in 1839 to engage, he said, in scientific research. But he eventually became embroiled in putting down a rebellion against rule from Brunei there, as well as in Brunei court politics, and was eventually named governor, Rajah, of Sarawak.
“Edge of the World” simplifies, and occasionally fiddles with, history, for example confusing or conflating two separate princes—Muda Hasim, with whom Brooke allied politically, and Badruddin, his favorite (and, it is conjectured, intimate). But in its general outline the script is not wildly inaccurate.
What is invented, or imagined, is its effort to draw a psychological portrait of Brooke as a man torn between two worlds, just as T.E. Lawrence was depicted in Robert Bolt’s screenplay for David Lean’s epic: he’s finally forced to jettison his British habit of rationality and embrace the savagery of the environment in which he finds himself. There’s nothing inherent wrong with such a dramatic understanding of his character. Unfortunately, Michael Haussman’s realization of the idea is too often heavy-handed; especially in its final stages, the story is drenched in a blurred, soggy atmosphere that’s like a cinematic fever dream. Lean’s film used stillness with great acuity; Haussman’s often seems merely lugubrious.
Nonetheless Jonathan Rhys Meyers gives a sensitive performance as Brooke, initially conveying his adventurous spirit and emotional reserve and later his increasing identification with the locals, especially when he falls under the influence of two women, Madame Lim (Josie Ho) and the lovely Princess Fatima (Atiqa Hasiholan), who becomes his wife. (His narration, on the other hand, is often exasperatingly florid.)
Dominic Monaghan provides contrast as Arthur, who never abandons his pro-British stance (mirrored in the attitude of a British captain played by Ralph Ineson, whose main interest is in claiming Sarawak for the crown), and Farrant exudes the fervent support of Brooke by Charley, who ultimately became his successor as Rajah. More strident is Hannah New as Elizabeth, Arthur’s wife, who’s here presented not merely as a condescending European but as James’s former lover, who bore his illegitimate child (the actual mother of the boy Brooke later accepted as his remains unknown).
Among the local actors, Hasiholan is excellent as Fatima, and so are Samo Rafael and Bront Palarae as Princes Badruddin and Makhota, political rivals who ultimately take very different stances toward Brooke, the suave former becoming his confidant (and perhaps more), and the cruel latter, while happily using the British cannons early on, his most determined and dangerous opponent.
The film is elegantly made, in Sarawak itself. Paul Hasham’s production design and Akma Suriati Awang’s costumes are on point, and Jaime Feliu-Torres’ cinematography captures the mystery of the jungle and the exoticism of the Brunei culture with admirable finesse. Will Bates’s score is also effective.
But one can criticize the editing of Marco Perez which, in conjunction with Haussman’s direction, opts for a languid pace that submerges the dramatic possibilities in a morass of mood and hallucinatory suggestion.
“Edge of the World” is, ultimately, an intriguing portrait of a fascinating historical figure undermined by the director’s inclination to confuse turgidity with profundity.