The Lost City Of Z, 2016.
Directed by James Gray.
Starring Charlie Hunnam, Tom Holland, Sienna Miller, Robert Pattinson, and Angus Macfadyen.
The true-life story of early 20th century soldier-turned-explorer Percy Fawcett who discovered signs of an early civilisation in the Amazon basin. After serving in World War I, he made a final expedition, along with his teenage son, convinced that he would at long last find both the location and the proof he’d been searching for.
Think of a director who could make an epic movie, and somewhere at the foot of the list would be James Gray. Films like The Yards (2000) and Two Lovers (2008) earned him Palme D’Or nominations that didn’t translate into box office. The Immigrant (2013) fared even worse: not only was its distribution severely limited in America, it didn’t even make it into UK cinemas. Now, after working on essentially the fringes of the movie industry for some time, he’s thrust into the mainstream limelight with The Lost City Of Z.
He’s brought David Grann’s non-fiction best-seller to the big screen as both director and writer. It’s an epic story, one about belief turning to obsession, about fathers and sons, about empires and the environment. Spanning some 20 years, it also demonstrates the attitudes of the time in a way that makes you shake your head with disbelief at the prevailing arrogance. Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is a member of the Geographical Society, an establishment institution if ever there was one, and they refuse to believe that the indigenous tribes of the Amazon, who they regard as savages with little or no intelligence, could create anything worthwhile. Certainly not a civilization that goes back for hundreds of years.
Fawcett, on the other hand, is enlightened for his day – at least, when it comes to the tribes. He doesn’t see himself or his men as conquerors, but explorers who can help preserve their culture and history, not destroy it. He’s all too aware of what happened in America and can see for himself that the Amazonian people are intelligent, organised and have a deep understanding of the land.
Such understanding doesn’t extend to his home life and the position of women in society. His wife, the intelligent and confident Nina (Sienna Miller), is supportive of his expeditions, bears him three children and would like nothing more than to go with him. But he’s conventional about such things so, despite her frustration, she has to know her place. Especially when it was she that actually discovered the crucial document which points towards the existence of the City Of Z.
Fawcett’s determination to win at all costs is laid out early in the film, and there’s a deep-seated reason for it. He’s never been able to shake off his father’s reputation for gambling and drinking and it damages his career in the army, despite his efforts to rub out the stain on the family name. It also means that, when he becomes a father himself, he wants to be a role model to his two sons. The eldest, Jack (Tom Holland), adores him but has also inherited his mother’s spirit and, as a teenager, isn’t afraid to challenge his father. Nor does he think twice about going on that third and final expedition.
Gray relates this epic tale with clarity and enough imagination to show us what’s going on inside Fawcett’s head: despite appearances to the contrary, his family is always on his mind, especially his wife. It’s absorbing, thought-provoking and fascinating, but a simple adventure yarn it is not. Nor should it be. With its strong narrative, intelligence and a certain amount of introspection, it’s reminiscent of the films of David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia in particular. There’s the sense of a classic, both in the way it’s been made and in the making as well.
The performances are uniformly strong, from Charlie Hunnam who acquits himself well in the role as Fawcett, to Sienna Miller as his wife, who is more than his match when it comes to intelligence and spirit. The oft-maligned Robert Pattinson is almost unrecognisable underneath a scruffy beard as Percy’s right hand man, while there’s a particularly good turn from Angus Macfadyen as a powerful member of the Geographical Society who bluffs his way onto the second expedition and turns out to be a dangerous liability.
The Lost City Of Z looks and feels like a film that could have been made back in the 70s, yet it’s not out of place now. On the contrary. It’s a reminder that it’s still possible to make films like this – beautifully crafted, wise and completely immersive.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★