Edge of the World is a weak film that further dooms itself by so liberally cribbing from better works.
The name and fame of Sir James Brooke should be familiar to plenty, even if his (hi)story doesn’t immediately spring to mind. A well-known 19th-century adventurer and British officer, his life, and especially his position as the first white ruler and Rajah of Sarawak in Borneo, became a source of inspiration for novelists like Joseph Conrad (Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness) and Rudyard Kipling (The Man Who Would Be King.) From a cinematic standpoint, a grand personality of this sort can often provide thought-provoking context and entry point for great filmmakers to (re)observe and (re)capture various narratives of colonialism, addressing even the very concept of civilization, including its discontents, malaises, and befuddlements. Viewers should be able to quickly recall a wide range of cineastes who have traveled this terrain in their work — from Werner Herzog’s myriad such efforts to Lisandro Alonso and Lucretia Martel’s modern colonialist probings to James Gray’s recent The Lost City of Z. Given the rich cinematic history of these types of works, Michael Haussman’s biopic fiction Edge of the World, wherein Jonathan Rhys Meyers takes on the character of a young Brooke, might initially scan as a tempting watch. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long to realize that this film can neither live up to the dimension and valor of its historical character’s name nor should it be uttered in the same breath as the literary and cinematic masterworks of this particular subgenre.
It’s obvious from the start that Haussman and screenwriter Rob Allyn intend to somehow revive the ebullience and daring of old-school swashbucklers, but the obvious problem is that they don’t know quite how. They’re lost in the proverbial jungle, the film an unbalanced mix of narrative clichés and simplistic action-adventure dramatics that proves absolutely enervating. And then there are the mystical scenes in which Meyers offers soliloquy-like voiceovers, musing about nature and the new way of life he claims he has found in these untouched, faraway lands (with the supposed goal being to “build a natural utopia”). But if the film’s tilt toward historical epic reminds of a second- or even third-rate Apocalypto, it’s soft ruminating proves the worse sin, feeling like little more than a dumb riff on The New World. Indeed, this shallow Malickian mimicry grates even more than the film’s stultifying action, its absence of fleshed-out characters, and its failure to produce any real narrative thrust; everything feels merely ornamental within the strange milieu of the film — the setting’s exotic beauty is at least frequently captured thanks to the efforts of DP Jaime Feliu-Torres, however.
Amid the gory, R-rated sequences of carnage and beheadings, there is littered some PG-13 sexuality between Brooke and his local beloved, Fatima (Atiqah Hasiholan), but that’s about it. It all comes back to those pseudo-Malickian compositions and narrations, and Edge of the World has almost nothing else to offer stylistically other than to constantly run scenes in slo-mo and hit dramatic soundtrack cues (in music video fashion) to build to a supposedly effective climax. In one scene, Fatima asks Brooke, “Why do you come here, to Sarawak?”, to which he replies: “Escaping, I suppose. Looking for something.” Viewers hoping to find anything sense-sharpening or eye-opening here will likely be longing for the same, but will instead leave the affair pretty empty-handed. There aren’t even escapist pleasures to be found in Edge of the World, just an over-romanticized and corny portrait of a man whose best quality is being the least racist among a cadre of colonialists.
Published as part of Before We Vanish | June 2021.