A film review by Craig J. Koban August 21, 2017

THE LOST CITY OF Z jj
 

2017, PG-13 141 mins.

 

Charlie Hunnam as Percival Fawcett  /  Robert Pattinson as Henry Costin  /  Sienna Miller as Nina Fawcett  /  Tom Holland as Jack Fawcett  /  Angus MacFadyen as James Murray  /  Johann Myers as Willis  /  Daniel Huttlestone as Brian Fawcett  /  Michael Ford-FitzGerald as Hunt Leader  /  Edward Ashley as Arthur Manley  /  Franco Nero as Baron de Gondoriz  /  leksandar Jovanović as Urquhart

Written and directed by James Gray, based on the book by David Grann

 

 

THE LOST CITY OF Z (pronounced "zed") is a new biographical adventure period film that concerns the real life events of famed British explorer Percy Fawcett, who made multiple attempts to locate an ancient lost city in the Amazon (which he believed to exist and be the last remains of El Dorado in the jungles of Brazil).  He tragically disappeared with his son while on an expedition in 1925 and was never heard from again. 

Based on the 2009 David Grann book THE LOST CITY OF Z: A TALE OF DEADLY OBSESSION IN THE AMAZON, the film represents a refreshing, compelling, but albeit problematic change of pace for director James Gray, whose previous six films were all set in New York.  Having said that, THE LOST CITY OF Z is Gray's third period film in the sense that 2007's WE OWN THE NIGHT and 2013's THE IMMIGRANT were sent in the late 1980s and 1920s respectively.  

On a positive, THE LOST CITY OF Z is the kind of sumptuous and visually splendid adventure tale that harkens back to classical examples of the genre, and in our current CGI rendered and action focused blockbuster milieu, it's quite wonderful to experience Gray's measured, old school approach.  Unfortunately, THE LOST CITY OF Z stumbles and meanders when it comes to its screenplay and only makes half hearted efforts at exploring the potentially rich themes at its core.  That, and it contains a lead performance (more on that it a bit) that doesn't quite credibly cut to the heart of darkness of the story's main character. 

 

 

Part of the main problem with Gray's approach to this material is that he vastly condenses Fawcett's life and expeditions to the point of neutering their scale.  Now, films based on books and actual historical figures, most definitely, have to take some semblance of artistic license to make for a cohesive and satisfying film, but considering that THE LOST CITY OF Z is already clocking in at a somewhat sluggishly paced 141 minutes and yet still only encompasses three of Fawcett's eight actual trips to the Amazon makes the whole production feel paradoxically abridged.  Rather oddly, THE LOST CITY OF Z seems like it's both trying to cram in too much information about Fawcett and his quests while simultaneously and ironically glossing over some key aspects of his compulsive personality (he was, in real life, a racist without much understanding or sympathy directed towards the natives he encountered, but the film version of Fawcett here is more of an agreeable, yet compulsively driven man that displays great compassion for indigenous cultures, which comes off as rather forced). 

Gray tries as best he can to maintain a three act structure for the purposes of narrative symmetry, and the film appropriates ample historical records while having to dramatically condense certain scenes based primarily on the fact that so much regarding Fawcett's expeditions remains shrouded in mystery.   The film opens in 1906 by introducing us to the 39-year-old Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), who's in the middle of traveling for the Royal Geographical Society to South America to map the Brazil/Bolivia border.  Along for the ride are two British army soldiers, Henry (an unrecognizable Robert Pattinson) and Arthur (Edward Ashley), but during their journey several members of the team die due to the rigors and dangers of the jungle.  Nevertheless, Fawcett returns home and his journey is considered a success, and his newfound celebrity status and stature leads to him trying to convince his higher ups that a vast and lost city exists in the Amazon worthy of discovery and exploitation.  All it needs is proper funding, the right men, and a willingness to seek out and find it before someone else does.

With a new crew, Fawcett makes yet another daring, yet dangerous trek back to the Amazon, and even when new additional evidence of the existence of the city comes up, Fawcett is unable to secure quantifiable proof that the city is actually out there.  Cutting his trip short because one crew member (Angus MacFadyen) falls sick with blood poisoning, Fawcett is forced to prematurely return home, and when World War I breaks out all other future expeditions are put indefinitely on hold.  We then flashforward to 1925 to an older, but still determined Fawcett wanting to go back to his lifelong passion project in the wilderness, but this time with his only son at his side, Jack (Tom Holland).  This would be the last time the world would ever see the pair again. 

To its esteemed credit, THE LOST CITY OF Z is not only one of Gray's most beautifully lush and natural films, but it's arguably one of 2017's most visually immersive and atmospheric efforts.  Shot on location in Belfast, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, and Rio Don Diego under the painterly eye of cinematographer Darius Khondji, THE LOST CITY OF Z lovingly crafts its jungle scenes with an elegant, yet oppressive sense of the otherworldly.  As Fawcett and crew head down river on their trips and attract the attention of the natives - some of which were cannibals  - they find themselves on the receiving end of vicious attacks by spears and arrows, not to mention jungle predators and the harsh environmental conditions.  There's rarely a moment in THE LOST CITY OF Z when you don't feel like you're a part of Fawcett's crew bracing the foreboding threats - and splendor -  that the Amazon has to offer.  The out of body allure that this film generates in the way that it powerfully transports you to its exotic historical world is its greatest strength. 

No exquisite looking film, though, is thoroughly complete without an empowered script and performances to help lead the charge and compliment it.  This is where THE LOST CITY OF Z, as mentioned, falls disappointingly short.  The structure on display here is problematically abridged and glosses over too many facets of Fawcet's life while ignoring others altogether.  There's also the manner that Gray seems to rush through various subplots - especially one involving his beleaguered wife back home (a thanklessly good Sienna Miller in an underwritten role) that complains that her husband is an absentee husband and father.  Then there are the film's rich ideas and themes, some of which are explored and others that seem arbitrarily ignored.  Fawcett's life, times, and adventures tap into notions of personal obsession, prejudicial colonial attitudes about native cultures, and the zeal to exploit a natural world without a care in the world of the consequences to those residing in it.  All of these ideas could have made for a layered and compellingly thoughtful character and historical study, but THE LOST CITY OF Z only superficially deals with them.  

Hurting the whole production even further is Charlie Hunnam as Fawcett, who certainly has the correct requisite level of handsome, square jawed matinee idol vigor to physically pull off the role.  He also does an authentic job of encapsulating Fawcett's unwavering bravery and reckless bravado.  Yet, Hunnam has never been an actor of broad range, which, I think, hurts the film's abilities to make Fawcett come off as scrupulously well rounded person of complicated historical interest.  No doubt about it, Hunnam can play convincing adventure heroes in his sleep and certainly displays a headstrong passion in inhabiting the role of Fawcett, but I rarely felt like his work here was a psychologically deep portrayal that evoked a man of troubling contradictions.   Fawcett gives many passionate speeches in the film, but the handling of the character by Hunnam overall registers as a bit flat...and dispassionate.  Imagine, say, a Michael Shannon leading the fanatical charge of this man and you'll understand what I mean. 

THE LOST CITY OF Z, on a level of spellbinding artifice, is the kind of silver screen production that we simply don't get in abundance anymore, and Gray's pragmatic aesthetic approach to this material should be applauded.  Regrettably, the story of Fawcett's life deserves a longer film and story treatment to do it proper justice, and this is where Gray's efforts left we wanting more.  With a more finely attuned lead actor and an equally sophisticated screenplay that didn't nip too many details out for the purposes of compression, THE LOST CITY OF Z could have achieved the level of a grand and full bodied historical epic.  It unmistakably has the look of one, but not the dramatic and thoughtful heart of one, which results in this film being one of 2017's great missed opportunities.

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