Rajah Is Two Years Too Late, and Not Nearly Worth the Wait

Dept. of Hasty Histories


Back in 2019, the news broke that Hollywood was coming to Sarawak to begin work on the historical story of Sir James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak. This was big. People were interested. More so when it was revealed that Jonathan Rhys Meyers (The Tudors, Bend it Like Beckham) would be stepping into the title role. But then everything went quiet and the hype died down. Fast forward to two years later, the world is in lockdown because of the pandemic, and the film is quietly released over in the US and UK on VOD. (For those paying attention, the movie also opened the 5th Malaysian International Film Festival in 2022.) I thought this thing was done and dusted. I sure as hell wasn’t expecting a theatrical release. And yet, here we are, in 2023, and Rajah is out in Malaysian cinemas. The first question is, “why?” The second is, “was it worth the wait?”

Rajah, or Edge of the World as it was called over on the Western side of the world, tells the story of how Sir James Brooke, a British explorer, landed on the shores of Borneo in 1838 and eventually became the state’s first ever White Rajah. It is familiar tale to most of us (or at least the sanitized version we studied in our history books) and something that feels deserving of its own feature film treatment. This one was a long time coming. The problem, however, is that this story feels like something far too complex to be distilled into just under two hours.

Going Native


On the surface, Rajah does feel like an honest attempt at telling this story. The incredibly quick pacing of the movie, however, made the whole attempt feel a little haphazard. Even lopsided. This is, after all, fragile territory. When bringing something like this to the big screen, you have to at least try to give a voice to every side of this history. But by focusing on Brooke’s journey, the filmmakers seem to have all but ignored the natives and their plight.

The more I went on with this viewing, the more I felt this should have been a limited series. So many details were skimmed that it left me with more questions than answers. Every scene is punctuated with a voice over that is supposed to feel like Brooke’s journal entries, but they just leave you wondering how we ended up there. It was such a jarring experience that I had to take breaks in order to keep up with its breakneck pace.

Let me put it this way. Within the first 15 minutes, Brooke has landed on this island and been immediately accepted by the Dayaks. No pushback. No hesitation. Just welcomed with open arms by the Sultan and his people. By the time we get to the 45th minute, he was already the Rajah of Sarawak. Now, I am pretty sure his journey wasn’t that easy, but hey, we need to keep this story moving right?

Too Fast, Too Furious


Watching this movie felt like reading the chapter headings of a history book. It’s a brief and clean summary of what happened without exploring any of the messy details. Why did he sail to Borneo in the first place? Just to explore? What was this love triangle between him and his cousin? How did the romance between him and Fatimah actually happen? Did Fatimah play a bigger role in all this? How did Brooke manage to instill that much faith in the Sultan to make him Rajah? There are so many lingering questions that the only way to appreciate anything in this movie is to supplement it with a whole bunch of reading yourself. (Which we should be doing anyway, but it would be nice if the movie tried to answer at least the most basic ones.)

Despite its pitfalls, if there is one saving grace to Rajah, its in the performances. While it’s clear that Jonathan Rhys Meyers was phoning it in with his interpretation of James Brooke, he nevertheless possesses enough charm to keep you glued to him. Our very own Bront Palarae as Pengiran Indera Mahkota is also a delight. So much so that I found myself aching to see more of him. He was incredibly underutilized in this and I would have loved to see more of him and Myers staring each other down in a battle of wits.

There is plenty of potential here. We have so many stories like this that have never been told on screen. And I for one want to see more of it. That said, these stories need the time and the space to fully embrace the intricacies of history. Don’t try and cram something so complex into such a short runtime. You’re just setting it up to fail. Rajah took over two years to reach our screens and it really wasn’t worth the wait.

Rajah is now showing in Malaysian cinemas.

Nick Dorian spent most of his childhood dreaming of being a plumber, mainly because he loved watching Super Mario go on adventures. When he heartbreakingly discovered actual plumbers don't go on great adventures in real life, he went on to sit in front of a TV or movie screen, watching more people go on adventures, and then talk to anybody around him about what he's seen, whether they liked it or not. Fast forward to today, he somehow managed to make watching movies and TV shows, and discussing them, an actual living. Which goes to show, dreams do come true. Except when you dream of being an Italian plumber who fights mushrooms and toads.

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