With its winsome narration, frequent cutaways to nature and focus on discovery, “Edge of the World” resembles nothing so much as Terrence Malick’s similarly titled “The New World.” Say this for director Michael Haussman and writer Rob Allyn: They have good taste. Their period drama set in 19th-century Borneo may not rise to the level of its lyrical predecessor — few movies do, after all — but there are worse transgressions than a film’s grasp exceeding its reach.
In yet another similarity to Malick’s retelling of the American creation myth, “Edge of the World” follows an English explorer who finds more than he was expecting upon arriving in a foreign land. Here it’s Sir James Brooke (Johnathan Rhys Meyers), who arrives in Borneo in 1839 and quickly meets two princes vying for power; that they’re cousins only adds to the intrigue — and tension. Much to their (and, indeed, our) surprise, Brooke doesn’t appear to have sailed this far to conquer, only to explore and catalogue the new environs to which he’s strangely drawn.
This kind of adventurer is a well-worn archetype, but Meyers plays him well. You know the type: world-weary emissary who’s begun questioning his commitment to the imperialist regime he represents and longing for something new. He’s seen too much, done too much, and the idea of a tranquil way of life far removed from the troubles that compelled him to set sail in the first place sounds like the only second act that will bring him a modicum of peace. That conflict will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the likes of “Dances With Wolves” and “The Last Samurai,” but here too Meyers manages to make it feel sincere if not new.
The script isn’t always on the same level as his performance, however: Brooke’s dialogue and narration include such pearls of wisdom as “no matter how far you run, you can never escape yourself” and “to have peace, we must make war.” Brooke was a true adventurer — he inspired both “Lord Jim” by Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” — and so his conventional soliloquies can’t help but feel less intrepid than their speaker. What’s more, the filmmakers don’t interrogate their story’s colonialist overtones or forays into white-savior tropes as much as many will hope: Other than some banter about whether he’ll civilize his new hosts or vice versa, the righteousness of his journey is never questioned.
One exception finds Brooke being told that “the British love to play the great game, but they never see that we are the kings and you are the pawns” by one of the two princes with whom he’s become entangled. Those words resonate even more strongly when, in order to quell an ongoing conflict, the Englishman is made Rajah of Sarawak and quickly discovers that he’s more comfortable in the role than any he’s had before. Aside from a few memorable grace notes, as when he’s made to preside over the murder trial of a crocodile charged with killing a man, the swashbuckling that follows is mostly bog-standard — there are pirates and heads on stakes, with Brooke often discouraged but never defeated.
Where “Edge of the World” distinguishes itself is in its evocative visuals of Borneo’s unspoiled beauty (courtesy of cinematographer Jaime Feliu-Torres) and the lived-in intensity of Meyers. If the film can’t help but feel like a relic from a bygone era, that’s ultimately part of its appeal — the sun may have finally set on the British Empire, but at least it hasn’t yet set on this mode of storytelling.