Edge of the World review – swashbuckling white saviour biopic feels out of date

While the name James Brooke might seem obscure to many viewers, his exploits in south-east Asia, retold here in Michael Haussman’s adventure biopic, are not so foreign. After all, they inspired Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim and Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King. Brooke’s stranger-than-fiction journey from ex-soldier in the Bengal army to becoming the White Rajah of Sarawak, which once attracted the attention of Errol Flynn, is especially ripe for the silver screen. Alas, Edge of the World fails to do justice to this fascinating and deeply complex chapter in British colonial history.

The film begins with Brooke (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) arriving in picturesque Sarawak via boat, along with his cousin Arthur (Dominic Monaghan) and nephew Charley (Otto Farrant), both army men. Their presence is immediately met with suspicion and hostility from the local aristocrats, especially Prince Mahkota (Bront Palarae). Brooke’s courageous efforts during a pirates’ siege, however, lead to his being crowned Rajah, much to the dismay of Mahkota. As Brooke strives to establish the domain as a sovereign nation, his reign faces Mahkota’s bloody attacks, not to mention criminal charges from the British empire.

Edge of the World cannot, unfortunately, resist over mythologising Brooke’s legacy; such an approach only strips the first White Rajah of his complexities and ambiguities.

Sidestepping the hard question of whether Brooke is a white saviour, the narrative’s superficial view appears to suggest that he is a “benevolent” imperialist merely because, unlike his peers, he does not say racist things out loud. Meanwhile, Brooke’s actual policies and style of governance remain largely unexplored, overshadowed by a romance plot and endless depictions of gory native customs. As Edge of the World gradually veers into Apocalypse Now territory, the ties between Sarawak and Brooke turn woefully simplistic. Edge of the World might work as an ode to bygone swashbuckling classics, but Brooke deserves a much more nuanced biopic.

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