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Review: The Lost City of Z (2017)

The Lost City of Z (2017)

Directed by: James Gray

Premise: Based on a true story. British explorer Percival Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) comes to believe that there is an ancient city deep within the Amazon. His journeys are interrupted by the outbreak of World War I and cause strain on his home life.

What Works: The Lost City of Z is a story of a man expanding his conception of the world and struggling to share his epiphanies with society. The film takes place in the early twentieth century. Percival Fawcett and his wife are primarily concerned with their place in British high society. Because of his family legacy, Fawcett’s efforts for upward social mobility are frustrated and so he takes a job mapping a region of the South American jungle in hopes of improving his family name. While in the Amazon, Fawcett discovers evidence of an advanced civilization. His reports are met with skepticism; Imperial British society cannot accept that the indigenous people of South America would be capable of creating an advanced civilization and Fawcett leads additional expeditions into the jungle to prove his hypothesis. There is a subtle cultural commentary at work in The Lost City of Z. Fawcett decries white imperialist racism and recognizes the humanity of the indigenous people. His journeys into the Amazon are interrupted by service in World War I. The barbarity of the war undermines the racist superiority with which the Europeans regard the indigenous people. The Lost City of Z is at its best when it is in the jungle and the movie recalls films such as Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Like those films, The Lost City of Z conveys the hardship and oppressive nature of the jungle. The explorers encounter wildlife and difficult terrain while coping with unfriendly natives and the tropical heat. The film is led by Charlie Hunnam as Percival Fawcett and Hunnam is an engaging lead. Fawcett is a British gentleman but he’s also practical and in his own way a visionary. It’s a unique combination of traits and Hunnam conveys the toughness and physicality of an explorer as well as this man’s intellectual and emotional insight. Fawcett’s journeys keep him from his family for long periods of time and the movie effectively dramatizes the tension between the children and their absentee father. Also notable among the cast is Agnus Macfadyen as James Murray, another British explorer with a spurious reputation as an outdoorsman. Macfadyen is terrifically pathetic and his weakness plays into the film’s critique of British colonialism. This film is also admirable in its portrayal of native people. It neither demonizes them nor gives into the platitude of the noble savage.

What Doesn’t: The Lost City of Z is an adventure story but it isn’t made in the style of a contemporary Hollywood studio film. This picture is paced differently than a lot of today’s movies and it isn’t a series of action set pieces. That’s not a flaw of The Lost City of Z; it’s a deliberate creative choice by the filmmakers and the picture is stylistically reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s The New World and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. However, that style results in a film that plays rather long and it may take some effort by contemporary viewers to keep engaged with it. The Lost City of Z is based upon true events. Some of the sequences are speculative, especially in the ending, but as a historical drama The Lost City of Z suffers from a loose narrative structure. In general, stories ought to be as economical as possible and everything in a narrative motion picture ought to drive toward the conclusion. The Lost City of Z is not so perspicuous. The storytelling recounts many of the historical milestones of Percival Fawcett’s life but without obviously building toward the conclusion.

Bottom Line: The Lost City of Z is an intriguing story that’s very well made. Some viewers are going to find it opaque because of its filmmaking style but the departures from contemporary moviemaking are mostly to the picture’s credit.

Episode: #646 (May 7, 2017)