British soldiers Sir James Brooke (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) and cousin Colonel Arthur Crookshank (Dominic Monaghan) arrive on an uncharted jungle island almost three times as large as Britain itself. Full of good spirts and good intentions, it’s not long before the native tribes of the island (what we now know as Borneo) decide if Brooke and his men are to be trusted in their expedition that not even Queen Victoria herself knows about.
It is laid out early on that Brooke is a flawed man. A man who had made mistakes on home soil and failed in everything from servicing in the army to marriage. Our story of Brooke is also the real life inspiration for the 1888 Rudyard Kipling story and classic 1975 movie The Man Who Would Be King starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine. Brooke has come to the edge of the unknown world to discover something worthwhile – to be somebody worthwhile – and make his ancestral name something to remember.
Rhys-Meyers breaks away from his recent action / thrillers to give a much more character focused portrayal as Brooke. Rhys-Meyers shows how good an intense actor he his. He channels that intensity, leadership and calm focus as Brooke as he did in his portrayal of Henry VIII in the acclaimed TV series The Tudors. Away from the noise and excess of Hollywood, he shines best in meaty roles.
As a nobody to strange lands but seen as a God to many, it’s not long before Brooke’s guile, strength and nobility earn him the title of King (Raja) of Sarawak, but not without some doubt by those closest to him. Monaghan may be overshadowed by Rhys-Meyers and the engrossing story around him initially, but he’s the one who wants his cousin back and isn’t afraid to talk hard fact and truth. The two share some tender scenes towards the final act that explore both of their views and feelings towards the Empire and their own place in it.
Malaysian extras and acting talent such as Bront Palarae, Wan Hanafi Su and Shaheizy Sam lend authenticity to their roles as both friend and foe of the tribes Brooke encounters. Hong Kong actress Josie Ho radiates a very serene beauty and calm about her as Madame Lim, the one who captures Brooke’s eye on the island and a woman who has seen both sides of war and peace. The cast as a whole is spot-on for telling such an important and culturally meaningful story with equally important characters. You can really believe all you see from the tribes; be it their ritual dancing, their savage fighting or close-knit community.
American director Michael Haussman, known more for his award winning music videos and artistic features, lends his fine eye to this film with an international, independent crew including Jaime Feliu-Torres as cinematographer and Will Bates providing score. The crew seems to remove any Hollywood excess from the production of this adventure and retain a sense of simplicity, scope and sheer wonder across the terrain. We see and feel every ounce of danger and beauty, made more prominent by filming on Sarawak itself; you can’t get closer to the source material than this. There’s nothing wasted on screen, be it colour, light or framing for a beautiful shot.
The gorgeous locations used along with the majestic score are nothing but dreamy to see. Sprawling green rooftops of trees reach to the edges of the frame, topped by brown mountains in the distance and low hanging cloud. It’s dripping with authenticity, and your senses never turn off in hearing the buzzing of insects or flowing water, or watching the vast scale of the environment around the characters. Running at under two hours, the pacing is gentle and never peaks too soon, maintaining a steady sense of narrative and development, focusing on various plights of the British Empire to expand their colonies and supporting Sarawak.
Being the story that inspired the novel and subsequent film adaptation, you won’t watch this feeling it’s a thin remake of Connery and Caine’s adventure. This is a very different story and Haussman knows what it wants to be, never replicating what has come before. Yet, in the same breath, it’s easy to see what Kipling took and crafted into his book that made it to the silver screen and fans of either should certainly explore this tale.
There is plenty of character study here, and you can’t help but be drawn into Brooke’s honest desire to find a purpose, to find love and to find a new calling in a place he can truly call a home. It explores cultural ignorance, race equality and the less than favourable attitudes of the British Empire in their blind conquests, represented by Brit Ralph Ineson. These scenes are uncomfortable to watch, but really do help show colonisation at its best, and equal worst.
Don’t come in expecting a swashbuckling action film that has rip-roaring pistol shoot-outs, mighty sailors on the open sea or clashing swords. It’s minimalistic and focused on character and location. But that’s not to say that there isn’t a mighty sense of danger and threat when it comes to the British Empire supporting their own in the final act against rival tribes on the attack.
Haussman gives us something tranquil and often powerful to watch, and Rhys-Meyers is the anchor to it all, giving a fantastic performance and showing he’s still one of the best actors of his generation.
Edge Of The World will be released digitally and on home-video from 21st June 2021.