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The Lost City of Z

Posted on the 19 July 2017 by Christopher Saunders
The Lost City of ZJames Gray's The Lost City of Z (2017) breaks the mold of recent epics that are all spectacle and little depth. It's a remarkable movie, functioning both as an immersive, red-blooded adventure and a tortured character study, showing the wages of exploration and personal obsession.
In 1904, Major Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) languishes on garrison duty in Ireland when the Royal Geographic Society asks him to map the border between Bolivia and Brazil. Along with Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley), Fawcett plunges into the Amazon jungle and experiences a hellish travail culminating in the discovery of ancient artifacts. This convinces Fawcett that a lost city, long rumored by local natives, is real, but his claims invite skepticism and ridicule from fellow explorers. Fawcett returns repeatedly to South America over the next 20 years, unable to find the city he calls Z or shake his fascination.
Based on David Grann's nonfiction book, The Lost City of Z shows a rousing, classical handsomeness rarely seen in modern Hollywood. Gray and cinematographer Darius Khondji relish robust imagery, from the pastoral gold of the Irish countryside to the chaotic green-and-brown of a World War I battlefield, not to mention the endless, sweltering jungle vistas. There are numerous action scenes - a breakneck stag hunt to Great War action to chases with hostile natives - yet the movie's equally effective in quiet, eerie moments with the surreality of Werner Herzog: an opera company performing in the jungle, a sweltering rubber plantation, a fortune teller in France, the gorgeous finale with Fawcett and his son (Tom Holland) descending into a flame-lit Limbo.
The Lost City of ZThe Lost City of Z evokes both wonder and fear, the excitement of exploration. Gray stresses the horrors of the jungle, from lingering disease and menacing animals (one explorer's devoured by piranhas, another menaced by a jaguar) to modern-day slavery and natives ranging from hostile to timid to friendly. For all the movie's grinding horrors, Gray never ignores the excitement of exploration, treating Fawcett's mad quest as something grand, enticing even its futility. It's helped immensely by Christopher Spelman's beautiful score, whose enchanting mysticism frequently evokes Maurice Jarre's work for David Lean.
In these regards, and its central characterization, Z most resembles Mountains of the Moon (1990), another portrait of explorers driven to madness, rivalry and self-destruction. Not as immersed in explorers' fame complex as Bob Rafelson's film, Gray depicts Fawcett as an aimless, aging soldier of disreputable background, whose lack of connections leads him to backwater postings while his colleagues achieve glory. Where Richard Burton and other explorers relished their celebrity, Fawcett's a more pure soldier-scientist intrigued by the City's intellectual implications rather than its reflection on him. His colleagues ridicule him as much out of racism against perceived South American inferiors, which only steels his resolve.
Z treads familiar ground showing Fawcett's skeptical backers, whom he heckles in a grandstanding lecture, and his rivalry with James Murray (Angus Macfayden). A decorated explorer in his own right, Murray proves a massive liability when he joins Fawcett's second expedition and later attempts to blacken his reputation. This plot strand, along with Fawcett's arguments with his long-suffering wife (Sienna Miller) and estranged son, is the most conventional, but it's necessary to show how Fawcett's obsession destroys and consumes those around him. Ultimately they, too, are obsessed and consumed by Fawcett's obsession, which becomes an all-consuming madness.
The Lost City of ZCharlie Hunnam (late of TV's Sons of Anarchy) tackles Fawcett's difficult character with intelligent aplomb. Never conventionally charming, Fawcett nonetheless possesses a roguish appeal that makes him easy to root for, no matter how stubborn and self-destructive. Hunnam delves into Fawcett's anguished soul, conveying his obsession as a way to redeem a life largely wasted, a path less to professional success than personal deliverance. Thanks to Hunnam's performance, intense yet restrained, we're always invested in Fawcett, who evinces a Joseph Conrad brand of tragic destiny.
The supporting cast employs familiar faces in unfamiliar roles. Robert Pattinson is completely unrecognizable with heavy beard and alcohol-slurred speech; his practical skepticism and dry wit provide a counterpoint to Hunnam's obsession. Tom Holland makes the most of a role requiring him to disapprove of Fawcett's megalomania, before being infected by it. Angus Macfayden, Franco Nero, Ian McDiarmid and Clive Francis occupy character roles, with Nero especially engaging as a debauched rubber tycoon. Even Sienna Miller shades her stock character with depth, frustrated that she must sublimate her own intellect to her husband.
At once tragic and breathtakingly exciting, The Lost City of Z offers an unforgettable experience. We still get period dramas and occasional epics of course, but rarely as handsome, complex and engaging as this. Ultimately, Fawcett's quest swallows the viewers as well, evoking wonder and magic in a way only great movies can achieve.

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