Film Review: ‘Edge of the World’ Gets Two Misses

The story line will be familiar to many readers and movie goers. Real-life adventurer Sir James Brooke, played by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, disembarked from a British ship when it anchored on a beach in Borneo, became enthralled with the island’s tropical exoticism, and remained for the rest of his life.  His unusual story inspired Joseph’s Conrad’s Lord Jim and Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King.  But director Michael Haussman and screenwriter Rob Allyn never lift “Edge of the World” to the level of art.

Jonathan Rhys-Meyers plays adventurer Sir James Brooke.

Disenchanted with his life in England, where he has abruptly ended an engagement and left another woman pregnant, James Brooke lands in Borneo intending to do botanical research for the Royal Geographic Society. It is 1839 and Brooke, having found life in Victorian England stultifying and tedious, now spends his time paddling the streams in Borneo,  observing, drawing, and writing about plants never seen before in England. But trouble finds him.

A rebellion is brewing as two princes, Badruddin (Samo Raphael) and Mahkota (Bront Palarae), who are cousins but have vastly different views on warring and governance, clash. Brooke easily sides with Badruddin, who is more benevolent in his governing style and who eschews Mahkota’s warring practice of beheading his enemies.  When the fighting is over, the Sultan of Brunei rewards Brooke for his help in squashing the rebellion by making him Rajah of Sarawak.

Along with being a ruler in this strange land, Brooke is also rewarded with the love of the island’s most beautiful woman, Fatima (Atiqah Hasiholan). When Brooke’s two British companions, who have stayed with him for several months in Borneo, now plan to return on the next ship home, they urge Brooke to go with them. But he vows to remain in Borneo while urging his companions to request the British Navy to send a steamship that can travel up the river so they can destroy the pirates who are marauding ships traveling in the southern Pacific waters.

A steamship does arrive, but the captain’s orders are to go into Borneo’s interior to find gold and other precious metals. Brooke’s views opposing colonialism and the exploitation of colonized lands are forward thinking and admirable, but mid-nineteenth century monarchs and mercantile barons see only the profits to be made from mining and trade.

“Edge of the World” suffers from several flaws and shortcomings. The plot that encompasses native uprisings, marauding pirates and more than one gory beheading also attempts to portray an introspective Brooke, worried about the sullied reputation he has left behind in England and hoping to create a more meaningful life in Borneo. At times, the screenplay does not serve either of these narrative goals and becomes muddled and confusing, often relying on clichéd lines like “to have peace, we must make war.”

Rhys-Meyers does little in his portrayal of Brooke to garner our sympathy or admiration. His acting is bland rather than convincing, relying more on inner struggles than on the strength and charisma that would inspire men to follow him in peace or war. In the 1963 film “Lord Jim,” the screen adaptation of Conrad’s novel, actor Peter O’Toole brought those qualities to his portrayal of Sir James Brooke.

“Edge of the World” is available to view On Demand.

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