REVIEW: The Lost City of Z [2017]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 141 minutes | Release Date: April 14th, 2017 (USA)
Studio: Amazon Studios / Bleecker Street Media
Director(s): James Gray
Writer(s): James Gray / David Grann (book)

“We are all made from the same clay”

I should have known The Lost City of Z wasn’t to be your regular old adventure picture of men on an expedition since James Gray was at the helm. He’s always been one for character studies delving deeper than the situation at hand to hit upon the emotional and psychological duress exhibited within. So even though he left New York City’s small-scale locale behind (as if The Immigrant could ever be called small-scale with its gorgeous period detail), the jungles of Brazil were allowed a similar sense of comfort and home despite their danger. This is courtesy of the real life figure at the heart of its tale: Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a man striving his whole life to be greater than the disgraced surname of his birth.

His story is one made for history books to immortalize due to his courage, dignity, heroism, politics, and near mythic status. David Grann ultimately put the twenty or so years that defined him to page in 2009 so that Gray could find it on his desk before it was published (much to his surprise). Undeterred by its epic scope (after scratching his head a bit), the finished product proves Plan B knew what they were doing because the film fits nicely into his oeuvre as a result of Gray focusing upon Fawcett specifically rather than using him as a vehicle to portray his many accolades. The script looks to get to the heart of motivation above action and altruism over egotism. Fawcett unwittingly evolves into an incendiary revolutionary.

It’s not about what he did in the military pre-1905, just that he did it trying to be accepted amongst British gentlemen too caught up in a checkered heritage wherein blood holds more weight than accomplishment. He isn’t one to stop himself from uncovering a mystery able to re-shape how mankind understands the origins of civilization simply because the evidence would turn the spotlight away from the white elite to the “dark savages.” And don’t think he will forget to credit his wife Nina’s (Sienna Miller) role in uncovering clues towards approaching his “white whale” of a destination either. There’s always an air of enlightenment surrounding Fawcett as a character—a drive for discovery no matter what the implications of said discovery might reveal. Truth always trumps image.

But there’s still a cost. Military service means months away from his growing family. Accepting the Royal Geographical Society’s post of surveying Brazil’s border to provide the impartial final word as to who controls the vast numbers of rubber mines in close proximity means years. Add the fact that his quest ceaselessly calls to him—either through destiny or madness—and impending war sparked by Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination nears and a lesser man would be accused of selfishly abandoning those he loved. The reality (at least as depicted onscreen), however, is the very opposite. Everything Fawcett does is to better the lives of his children and Britons the country over saddled by inherited disgrace. His search was poised to knock the old guard off its insular pedestal.

And it was all a fluke. He worked to make a name for himself in the minds of his nation’s leaders in hopes to fight. Receiving what appeared to be a boring job drawing maps was therefore the last thing he wanted. Because this job could help him reform that name, however, he had to accept. Luck then brought him Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley), two men of like-minded constitutions and courage. Luck kept him alive when others as close as six inches away perished. Leadership and survival skills played a role as well as his knowledge of Portuguese, but so much could have still gone sideways regardless. Fawcett continuously proved his worth and was ultimately rewarded with equals in marriage, friendship, and children.

This is The Lost City of Z‘s greatest strength: it never shies from admitting Fawcett wasn’t alone in his endeavors. He was willing to debate men of higher stations than he with a comically sarcastic tone able to increase his popularity. He was willing to risk his life to find what he sought, but moral and human enough not to risk those of his party unnecessarily. Costin and Manley’s words were taken with value. Nina’s too, although she delivers more than one point Fawcett ignores, ultimately admitting how he was far from perfect (his fight for other races patriarchal in scope with women held as “lesser” in physicality if not mind). And even though some (Angus Macfadyen‘s James Murray) deserved his wrath, he remained the bigger man.

Fawcett is a figure deserving of the legendary hero treatment Gray provides both from the standpoint of how he led his life and how it ended. Hunnam is great in the role, using the same sympathetic and endearing toughness that made his career on “Sons of Anarchy”. His Percy will never back away from duty, a trait that ultimately trickles down to his children despite his example leaving them fatherless for long stretches of time. Miller is wonderful as the woman by his side, a generic character trope allowed more depth than usual in these types of biographies. Tom Holland as their eldest son Jack might be forced to flip his impudence to idolatry too quickly due to the abridged nature of cinema, but we believe him nonetheless.

No matter the quality of his family, however, the sequences in South America are best. From the dangers of arrows to the hazy lights of ritual to insane juxtapositions like operas held in the jungle, the visual authenticity of scale and beauty in the “other” are magnificent. Pattinson’s Costin complements Fawcett perfectly as a man craving the same things until circumstances change and priorities shift in a way that never could for the latter due to the reason for his drive upward. And Macfadyen’s Murray epitomizes everything Fawcett, Costin, and Manley abhor—a quest for manifest destiny and self-aggrandizement rather than scientific discovery and humility—to supply the only true villain besides nature and fate of the whole. His is the cowardice that makes Fawcett’s calm so dignified.

Gray finds the same sense of wonder as Embrace of the Serpent, the mystery of what’s hidden becoming something we adhere to ourselves. Things slow down once WWI hits and he’s forced to put the Amazon on the back burner, but this chapter is still handled with deft control to keep the character’s star shining bright. It’s only in the off-screen period between war’s end and his final trip to Brazil that Jack can transform his affections and things can alter within the jungle to levels of danger for which Fawcett couldn’t prepare. Although his journeys were steeped in knowledge and compassion, those that followed weren’t. His fate once again becomes sealed by the actions of others; his poise and honor upon its arrival completely his own.

[1] Charlie Hunnam (left) stars as Percy Fawcett and Tom Holland (right) stars as Jack Fawcett in director James Gray’s THE LOST CITY OF Z, an Amazon Studios and Bleecker Street release.
[2] (L to R) Charlie Hunnam as Percy Fawcett, Robert Pattinson as Henry Costin and Edward Ashley as Arthur Manley in director James Gray’s THE LOST CITY OF Z, an Amazon Studios and Bleecker Street release.
[3] Sienna Miller stars as Nina Fawcett in director James Gray’s THE LOST CITY OF Z, an Amazon Studios and Bleecker Street release.

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