Once upon a time, movie studios could churn out epics unironically celebrating the glories of the British Empire and its heroic white saviors in full confidence that audiences would swallow the mythology wholesale. Those days are past, but the appeal of ripping good stories set in exotic locations remains, tempting filmmakers to take a chance by trying a new spin on the old formula.
Michael Haussman’s Edge of the World, starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the 19th-century adventurer Sir James Brooke, whose life story provided material for both Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim and Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would be King,” wants to celebrate the glories of the old-school epics while adding in nods to modern sensibilities, but ultimately fails at both tasks. The result is a film that commits the ultimate sin for an entertainment product: it’s boring.
The fault does not lie in Brooke’s life story, which was quite eventful. Born in 1803 in India, he grew up under the rule of the British East India Company, and served in their muscle arm, the Bengal Army. After recovering from injuries incurred in the First Anglo-Burmese War, he tried, with no great success, to be a merchant. An inheritance provided the opportunity to chuck it all, so Brooke bought a ship and sailed to the Far East, arriving at the Malay Archipelago in 1839. There, he proves so used in suppressing piracy and headhunting, to say nothing of native rebellions, that he was appointed ruler of Sarawak. Yes, like Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves and Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, Rhys Meyers is saddled with the burden of being the white guy who outdoes the non-white guys at their own game, but the latter two films at least provided some entertainment value alongside their racism.
Rhys Meyers looks the part and delivers a convincing physical performance as Brooke, although his efforts are undercut by a dreadful script by Rob Allyn. The most coherent storytelling in this film is achieved through title cards, while the story’s forward momentum is undercut by regular voiceover narration, delivered earnestly by Rhys Meyers. Narration and dialogue are both filled with cringeworthy nuggets like “to have peace, we must make war,” and “no matter how far you run, you can never escape yourself,” the latter reminiscent of the slogan on a coffee mug someone gave me during my college years.
Brooke may have no doubts about his right to be where he is and doing what he’s doing, but the film does supply him with a friend (Dominic Monaghan) who speaks perhaps the truest words in the entire film: “We don’t belong here!” One of the princes Brooke negotiates with also makes a good point—“the British love to play the great game, but they never see that we are the kings and you are the pawns”—but it doesn’t register on Brooke, who finds that his role as “the White Rajah of Sarawak” is one in which he can finally feel at peace. In fact, his son George Brooke ruled Sarawak after him, and was succeeded by his nephew Charles, and then Charles’ sons, and Sarawak remained under British rule until the 1950s.
If you can enjoy a celebration of colonialism without misgivings, you’ll probably enjoy Edge of the World a lot more than I did. It’s trying hard to be an updated version of an old-school adventure film, and the location shooting in Malaysia, courtesy of cinematographer Jaime Feliu-Torres, is the most successful aspect of this film. | Sarah Boslaugh
Edge of the World is available digitally and on VOD beginning June 4.