Adventure Abounds in the Hellish Jungles of Amazonia
The Lost City of Z is an adventure film that hearkens back to the golden age of Hollywood with a determined explorer venturing into the great unknown in search of meaning and glory. Writer/director James Gray is a Trial By Film favorite, with Two Lovers and The Immigrant showcasing his distinctive voice in film today. The Lost City of Z stretches James Gray beyond his comfort zone; whereas his previous films takes place in his hometown of New York City, this nonfiction adventure flick starts in pre-WWI Ireland and Britain before venturing into the unmapped jungles of Amazonia. James Gray absolutely shows he is up to the challenge of this sprawling tale with his careful direction and introspective writing style.
Gray cloaks The Lost City of Z with a hazy sepia filter; and coupling that look with a slow-simmering philosophical exploration of the lengths one man’s ambition can carry him, he makes a film that feels both classic and contemporary. A grand adventure story, The Lost City of Z gives a real-life account of British explorer/serviceman Colonel Percy Fawcett, who, during the first quarter of the 20th century, sought discovery of a lost city deep in the Amazon.
Adapted from the 2009 novel of the same name, James Gray shows his skill in writing by settling on a subtle story arc that focuses as much on character exploration as Fawcett’s glory of discovery into unknown lands. Percy Fawcett is originally sent by the military to act as a neutral surveyor of disputed national boundaries in unmapped lands. He grows an obsession over 20 years with finding his mythic ‘Z’. No matter what it is called, El Dorado or Zed or Z, Fawcett is called back into the jungle over and over in search of his white whale. Gray carefully develops Fawcett over the length of this 141 minute film, so audiences can understand how a man would push himself to such lengths for something that so many ridicule him for and insist is fictitious. He details how Fawcett takes innocent clues as optimistic developments on the path to success. If it weren’t for Gray’s sophisticated character study, audiences would be laughing at Fawcett’s foley. Instead, we are rooting for him; even with the inevitable truth before us.
Writer/director Gray gives his best effort to elevate The Lost City of Z, but star Charlie Hunnam (Crimson Peak), as Percy Fawcett, drops the baton from the start. Fawcett is the archetypical Hollywood ‘adventurer’, charismatic and determined, but Hunnam lacks the energy necessary for the role. Hunnam is trying here – it isn’t that he phones it in or that he is off-tone, he just doesn’t have the personality for the role. He carries the film as best he can, but one wonders if the original actor attached the role, Brad Pitt, could have done more. Hunnam never looks comfortable as Fawcett.
Opposite Hunnam are Robert Pattinson (The Rover) as Fawcett’s ‘1st mate’ Corporal Henry Costin, Sienna Miller (Factory Girl) as Percy’s wife Nina, and Tom Holland (Spider-Man: Homecoming) as Percy’s oldest son Jack. Miller and Holland follow in Hunnam’s wake, with their own versions of uninteresting performances that are good enough to not be bad, but not good enough to be good.
Pattinson however adds something different to the role, and easily becomes the (unintended?) focal point of his scenes; having the charisma Hunnam lacks. Pattinson’s Costin is a complex man with his own motivations for trekking into the jungles of Bolivia. Without much back home to tie him down, Costin is best wrapped up as he responds to an invitation for another journey into the darkness with, ‘The jungle is hill…but I rather like it.’ His lack of ties to his home in Britain will chain over the 20 years the film spans, and that will cause Costin and Fawcett’s paths to eventually diverge.
So expertly adapted by Gray, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the lessons and takeaways he alludes to in The Lost City of Z. Being in present day, audiences known full well that no city of ‘Z’ will be found, and Fawcett’s determination was for naught. While Gray provides a certain conclusion for his characters; in truth, Fawcett’s end remains unclear. While history could reflect on Fawcett as a fool getting lost in the jungle; Gray has a more meditative approach. Gray’s The Lost City of Z shows us that the hope of the unknown and the sense of adventure is worth the effort and price of possible failure. Gray writes it best, as Nina Fawcett reflects, ‘To dream to seek the unknown. To look for what is beautiful is its own reward. A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’
- Writing: 10/10 – Gray is on full form as he makes Fawcett’s obsession our obsession.
- Directing: 8/10 – Elegant and old-timey direction looks perfectly placed with this classic story.
- Acting: 4/10 – The casting director let us down with a group of poorly picked on-screen screen talent.
7/10 – James Gray makes another singular addition to his filmography, and continues to assert himself as one of the best storytellers today. However, this classic adventure story is brought down by miscast acting talents.