Film Review: The Lost City of Z

Although a little too muted for its own good at times, James Gray’s tale of real-life explorer Percy Fawcett’s quests to find the ruins of an ancient civilization in the Amazon is ravishingly beautiful adventure cinema at its finest.
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When it comes to dense jungles, winding rivers and the foolhardy Westerners who plunge headlong into them, it’s almost impossible for filmmakers to escape the pull of Conrad, Coppola and Herzog. Their seekers of glory are almost always portrayed as vainglorious madmen. In The Lost City of Z, though, James Gray takes a more humanist approach to his grand epic of a white explorer who goes hacking his way into the rainforest against all odds. Given the dangers and long odds against success, the results are more shorn of histrionics and overwrought drama than one might expect.

Based on David Grann’s gripping nonfiction account, Gray’s movie tracks the obsessive search of British officer and accidental adventurer Percy Fawcett (Charles Hunnam) for proof of a vanished Amazonian city. Things begin in 1905, with red-uniformed officers hunting and preening and pressing to be noticed at a gala ball. Fawcett is impatient for advancement as a way of securing the future for his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and children. But Fawcett’s modest background keeps him back. Surprisingly, the Royal Geographic Society recruits him for a multi-year expedition with officer Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson, looking and acting slightly consumptive as usual) to map the uncharted border between Brazil and Bolivia. Barely thinking of the long-suffering Nina, and eager to take the offer of “a grand adventure” to rescue his “ruined name,” Fawcett leaps into the unknown.

Things begin on a soaring note, with catapulting camera angles and a sliver of Kipling—“Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!”—for good measure. The journey’s frequently enumerated dangers (disease, violent natives) might bounce off Fawcett, nicely embodied by Hunnam’s easily carried heroic confidence. But the dense foliage, swarming piranhas, and occasional surprise shower of zipping arrows keep everyone else either on their toes, or sick and dying. But Fawcett pushes on, not just due to ambition and duty to Queen and Country. After hearing an Indian’s story of a “beautiful city of gold” and seeing pottery shards and vine-covered statues deep in the impenetrable jungle, Fawcett is convinced he can find evidence of a long-vanished civilization.

Back in Europe, that opinion meets with disbelief and hostility. Fawcett’s proposal of an advanced city that predated modern Europe is viewed as “elevating the savage,” and thusly as suspect to the amateur gentleman explorer class as Fawcett’s unseemly ambition and aggrandizement. After a raucous and desk-pounding debate at the RGS which kick-starts the movie’s heretofore muffled stiff-upper-lip drama and brings Hunnam’s passions to a long-awaited boil, Fawcett sets out again for the jungle.

This is an adventure tale, redolent with the necessary visual poetry and slashing dangers, not to mention the burn of competition once it becomes clear that the Americans are on the hunt for discoveries as well. But it’s also a cautionary tale about hubris and arrogance, particularly that of the Westerners who thought whole swaths of the world were empty and for their taking. The mockery of European pretensions is sharp, while still avoiding romanticizing. Witness Franco Nero’s grand turn as a fever-addled rubber baron in the jungle with his opera house and enslaved Indians in chains, or the dead-eyed savagery of the trench-warfare scenes once Fawcett is sent to fight in France.

Heavy with portent and dusky beauty courtesy of cinematographer Darius Khondji, who wizarded up the smoky magic of Gray’s The Immigrant, the movie’s early scenes cast an immediate spell that holds throughout. It’s fascinating to see a director like Gray navigate his way out of New York for the first time and not get mesmerized, as so many other filmmakers have, by the wilderness’ terror and beauty. He doesn’t entirely succeed. This is a movie that could have used a light tightening of the screws throughout. But still, it’s hard not to get a thrill as Fawcett determinedly hacks his way through the brush on his multiple missions, knowing that just because a part of the map is blank doesn’t mean that there’s nothing there.

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