Based on the remarkable life of James Brooke, EDGE OF THE WORLD is an introspective film about how an Englishman became the Raja of Sulawak. Such was his fame in Victorian England that Joseph Conrad used him as the model for the title character in his novel, Lord Jim, and rich women proposed marriage to him via mail. This treatment is less a rollicking action film than it is an adventure of the spirit as James attempts to fend off the British who hope the colonize the area, modernize the local system of justice to make it less bloodthirsty (even if a touch of Imperialism seeps through in his attitude towards multiple wives), and fight the local pirates who are preying upon the local population of Dayaks.
The year is 1839, and James (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is in Borneo with his brother Arthur (Dominic Monaghan) and their wide-eyed nephew, Charley (Otto Farrant). Though the ship that brought them is packing cannons, they are there on a scientific expedition by which James hopes to bring renown to the family name after skirting social disaster with a resigned army commission and a scandalous end to his engagement. It does not begin well, as they are almost immediately taken prisoner by the locals, whose custom of smoking the human heads they have taken as part of their culture is on display for the three as they await their fate (we also learn how long the heads need to smoke). Fortunately, their presence arouses the interest of the Sultan of Brunei by way of his heirs apparent, Prince Badruddin (Samo Rafael) and Pengiran Indera Mahkota (Bront Palarae), who, to differing degrees, are convinced that this is a spy mission on behalf of the British Empire. They are, however, completely convinced that the cannon on the ship that brought them will aid the in dealing with the local pirates. It’s that enterprise that provides James a chance for personal redemption even if his fellow Brits are left bemused and aghast.
This is as much a character study as historical drama, with Meyers providing the voice-over of Brooke’s musings on his failed career, cultural qualms about his homeland’s attitude towards slavery and conquered peoples, and the complex politics of his benefactors. Mahkot’s careless approach to summary executions, and Badruddin’s less than subtle signals about his romantic interest in James set the two against each other, with James coming out the winner when, after a successful raid on the pirate stronghold, the Sultan offers him his own kingdom. He accepts, hoping to protect the people of Sulakak from outsiders, British and otherwise, as well as improve their lives at home. He also finds true love in the arms of Princess Fatima (Atiqah Hasiholan), a woman as wise as she is beautiful.
There is more than a touch of exoticism at work here, particularly in the romances that have two locals swooning over the stranger among them. There is little in the way of character development for either Badruddin or Fatima. More interesting is Palarae as Mahkota, who is a nascent war lord without compunction or regret. When James asks the favor of a man’s life, Mahkota instead instantly severs the man’s head, and offers it to the Englishman as a specimen to be collected for his studies, and a fresh one at that. Still the gauzy romantic interludes with a refreshingly forthright Fatima are sweet, and the ones with the thwarted Badruddin have an aching melancholy to them.
Meyers is stalwart as James finds his mission in life, and a place that finally feels like home to him. As the audience surrogate, he swallows the racists insults from his fellow Brits with palpable difficulty when necessary, but is coolly measured when putting the white people in their place. This is a peacemaker, albeit one who maintains an aloofness, as though afraid that letting too much emotion show through would open a floodgate beyond his ability to control.
EDGE OF THE WORLD is a beautiful, sometimes violent film. Working on location in Malaysia, director Michael Haussman takes full advantage of the lush, mysterious jungles in which the action takes place to set the stage for an intriguing story in which fact is stranger than fiction.