It’s always damned impressive to see Jonathan Rhys Meyers bring the same intensity he’s long been famous for in yet another “larger than life” role in the big screen.
Meyers gives a soulful turn as a benevolent despot from the glory years of the British Empire, and makes “Edge of the World” never less than fascinating drama, even if the “epic adventure” has lost its luster in a less imperialist/more enlightened age.
So say what you will about how out-of-date another “white man’s burden” tale is, how this sort of British history has moved beyond politically incorrect to something even less defensible in the grand march of social progress. The star makes the “hero” conflicted and riveting and maybe ahead of his time.
Meyers plays a Brit straight out of the pages of Conrad’s “Lord Jim” or Kipling’s “The Man Who Would be King” in this screen biography of James Brooke, a man who became the Rajah of Sarawak on the gigantic island of Borneo in the mid-19th century. His life inspired both Conrad and Kipling, and as “The White Raj” — the working title of this film and other biographies of Brooke — his feats gave birth to every tale about a “civilized man” who comes in and takes over a “savage” land.
But as his Brooke, and those closest to him in this most foreign corner of the world, ask in the film, “Who will “civilize” whom?”
Brooke narrates his “Heart of Darkness” story, wondering “How long until they figure out that I’m a fraud?” — an Englishman born in India who “failed at school, at marriage, in the Army” now setting foot on Borneo on “a voyage of discovery, not conquest.”
Not that the two princes in charge of Sarawak, Mahkota (Bront Palarae) and the younger Badruddin (Samo Rafael) buy that. Not when Brooke and his cousin and Army friend, Crookshank (Dominic Monaghan) come ashore and make that claim.
Using “statecraft,” they finagle a journey up river, accompanied by those princes where they witness, firsthand, the “savagery” of the local “pirates” and the punishment meted out with impunity by both sides. This is a Muslim state, and beheadings are the preferred form of summary execution.
With the aid of his translator Subu and of the accomplished Chinese woman Madam Lin (Josie Ho), who appears to be an old flame, Brooke tries to avoid putting himself and the cannon on his personal schooner, the Royalist, at the disposal of the ruthless Mahkota, who is angling to better his chances to become the next Sultan of Brunei.
Prince Badruddin? He’s smitten with the man he calls “the white tiger.”
“So what do white men call it when princes lie to each other?”
As events conspire to envelope Brooke in the “war” that’s taking place in the jungle, events including his falling for the Princess Fatima (Atiqah Hasiholom), we see how he became Rajah and just what that led to.
Director Michael Hausman, best known for the Val Kilmer drama “Blind Horizon,” the experimental “A Study in Gravity,” and making music videos for JT and J. Lo, gives his movie a dense jungle, high-heat and humidity torpor, which tends to blunt the Rob Allyn screenplay’s narrative momentum.
A lot of complicated diplomacy, with Crookshank and a Royal Navy officer (Ralph Ineson) angling to add to The British Empire, which we’re reminded “the sun never sets on,” is muddied up for an action climax and a melodramatic finale.
And then there’s that whole ethnocentricism/implicit racism (embodied in Ineson’s fictional character) that cannot help but taint such a tale. British “discoveries” that led to “colonies” usually involved “conquest.” But not in this case.
Meyers is quite good at playing a man who seems loathe to take actions that he sees as imperialist, but loathe to avoid the entanglements that make those actions inevitable. His Brooke is a self-doubting, guilt-ridden sort who vows to snuff out slavery and head-hunting among the natives when he’s “given” his title and power. And his benevolence extends to those he keeps counsel with, two very smart and ahead-of-their-time outspoken women among them.
This makes for perfectly engrossing film that accurately mimics the way history treats James Brooke to this day — as heroic in a kind of “You take the good, you take the bad” arm’s length sort of way.
MPA Rating: unrated, graphic violence, sex
Cast: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Dominic Monaghan, Atiqah Hasiholom, Samo Rafael, Bront Palarae, Ralph Ineson and Jessie Ho
Credits Directed by Michael Haussman, script by Rob Allyn. A Samuel Goldwyn release.
Running time: 1:44