In a 2016 interview with the politically-minded website Dirty Movies, esteemed British filmmaker and two-time Palme d’Or winner Ken Loach doubled-down on comments he made with BBC News earlier that year about the “fake nostalgia” of history being broadcast in TV and film that “puts your brain to sleep” about his country’s sometimes ruthless history. Loach stated:
“The British Empire was founded on land conquests, enslaving people, transporting them to other countries, stealing people’s natural resources, exploitation, brutality, concentration camps. We do need to tell the truth about that. I’m not saying we should wallow in guilt. This is what happened and we need to know our history, that’s all. The fake patriotism of Britannia rules the waves is nonsense.”
Whew! Fake nostalgia AND fake patriotism! Well, he’s right, and it’s becoming difficult in this day and age of heightened global mindsets to dramatize positive stories related to the so-called adventures of British colonization. For Edge of the World, it took a pair of Americans in director Michael Haussman and writer Rob Allyn to find a reputable tale to tell that does not shy away from sinful honesty.
Edge of the World chronicles the story of James Brooke’s emergence as the first White Rajah of Sarawak on the Malaysian island of Borneo during the middle of the 19th century. The adoptive leader became the inspiration template for authors Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad and their respective far-off adventure stories of The Man Who Would Be King and Lord Jim. Played by the emotive Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Brooke has wasted his inheritance and family reputation to venture to this region of the South China Sea and an island three times the size of Britain rife with competing royals and fierce opposition. James is joined on this initial trip by his military friends Colonel Arthur Crookshank (Dominic Monaghan of Lost), the impressionable Charley (TV actor Otto Farrant), and their translating aide Subu (Shaheizy Sam).
Entering this menacing land carries a very distinct human and ethereal mood in Edge of the World. Short film specialist cinematographer Jaime Feliu-Torres strides throughout the authentic Malaysian film locations and its forest canopy-filtered strands of natural light. The sounds of tropical nature combine with an ominous and bell-tinged score from frequent Mike Cahill collaborator Will Bates to telegraph the right amount of dread. Those tingles are narrated by a monologue of nearly constant self-doubt from Meyers that plays up the fearsome turmoil and pain.
Brooke carries himself, with Meyers’ breathy delivery of dignity, to extol that he is there to see and record as a humble traveler. He values discovery over conquest. The local omens call him a god– “like a bird from heaven.” However, in his mind, James wonders what influence he can even muster to the present figures in power, including the cruel Pengiran Indera Mahkota (Bront Palarae), the sly Prince Badruddin (Samo Rafael), and the Sultan of Brunei (Wan Hanafi Su). The virtues of friendship and loyalty are hard to find or earn when you come from the land of colonizers and enter a harsh realm of pirates and headhunters.
Brooke and Crookshank find themselves conscripted into a position of stamping out a local rebellion. In doing so, James earns his Rajah title and the awarded Sarawak land that comes to the victor, much to the discontent of Mahkota. This civic position and an emerging romance to Fatima (Atiqah Hasiholan) anchor James from ever wanting to leave. The years, though, bring encroaching conflicts and challenges as he builds his personal kingdom.
The diplomacy on display in Edge of the World is a bluffing contest of when those in power lie to each other, causing Brooke to always wonder what the facetious, princely smiles actually covet. It’s who uses who, and the British have a history of that sort of exploitation. One cannot afford to miss the angles of clout and trust crossing in front of faces of all involved as they posture who gains what and who uses who to claim those returns. As the film puts it, figuring out who are the pawns and who are the kings can mean the survival of yourself and many others.
Within this empirical statecraft is where Brooke shows his admirable differences. He will not rule the British way of subservient conquest or the native way of lethal fear. James desires a benevolent culture of shared love for all living things with no slavery or punishing governance. This gets him labeled “too weak to kill, too weak to rule.” His transformation of unlearning old ways of keeping so-called savages in line and finding moral and merciful riches instead becomes successful and contagious.
Edge of the World gives Jonathan Rhys Meyers a prominent platform to express the turmoil that besets his historical figure between the assuaging passion he cultivates and the forced confrontations surrounding his dream. Haussman, stepping far up from pop music videos as a director, and Allyn (Java Heat) do not shield the machete-bladed violence that cuts that difficult gulf. Meyers is the captivating draw and earns it with excellent support from Samo Rafael’s inquisitive parallel and Atiqah Hasiholan’s proud partner. Positive effort and care were given to ethnic casting and representation.
More importantly and along the same lines as the ensemble, Allyn mined a solid example of history that eschews the overused and trumpeted white savior narratives that folks like Ken Loach rightfully besmirch. The protagonist here is a mindful one that contrarily presents respectful intentions, and that’s rare across the usually negative gamut of colonization stories. Much like Kipling and Conrad before us, much can be learned and respected from James Brooke, and Edge of the World suitably provides that dramatic opportunity for interested audiences.