The Lost City of Z has a divinely ominous quality. A roving camera fitted with wide lenses mightily seizes upon expanses and man’s place in the land. A film about men swallowed up by the scenery, be it through the violence of a piranha attack or via more metaphysical soul-shattering mania, which varies from simple constitutional breakdown to private obsession, this film makes for a humbling representation of man versus nature. The obsessive is Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a real life adventurer whose 1925 disappearance in the jungles of the Amazon provides the basis for this rather remarkable movie about the place of dreams in motivating and defining a person.
When you look at them as aspirational, dreams can often seem concrete, but writer-director James Gray’s adaptation of David Grann’s book examines the drive inspired by dreams with more complexity. His film makes vivid an essence that is as much about doubt as it is about the enthusiasm that fuels their pursuit. It celebrates the mystery of the unattainable, the possibility of what seems impossible. It’s in this almost spiritual place where Fawcett transcends his personal quest to redeem his family’s name (his father was known as a drunken slacker) as an officer in the British army. Though he has married the right woman in Nina Fawcett (Sienna Miller), a strong woman who ends up raising their three children mostly alone, their relationship is not without bitter tumult. Even though it comes at the cost of not being able to raise their children side by side and her own adventurous spirit reduced to vicarious living, she comes to understand her husband’s obsession and sums it up thus: “To look for what is beautiful is its own reward.”
Like the rationalized interstellar fantasy that life similar to that on earth exists in other solar systems, Fawcett rationalizes a civilization of “savages” hidden deep in the jungle, untouched by U.S. and European explorers, a place he calls “Zed,” in the English pronunciation. He holds onto the slightest clues as testament to this, like the bits of shattered pottery found among roots of trees. When he brings this evidence back home to rally for another expedition, a witty, hyped up comedy of manners ensues with a speech for further adventure at the Royal Geographical Society. His loud-mouthed speech is met with constant heckling, mockery and skepticism, like some loony, anarchistic pep rally. Meanwhile, World War I and its brutal trench warfare looms. It’s “civilized society” embracing antagonism and tearing itself apart. This stands not in contrast to a more quiet but no less brutal wilderness that speaks to the other, terrible side of the dream. It speaks true to the modern era of the 20th century, with the rise of mechanical warfare, industrialization and even the Futurist art movement: one must destroy for the sake of progress.
Outweighing the film’s darkness is the bromance of adventure and dedication that Fawcett finds in his devoted co-adventurers, Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley) and Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson). These subtly written parts are the yin to the yang of the tragically dysfunctional but no less loving Fawcett family. The dynamic also features quite a remarkable performance by Pattinson, who — like Kristen Stewart — continues to prove himself much more than the former actor behind the romantic hipster vampire couple of the Twilight movies. By the time Costin appears in the film’s drama, I never recognized the actor below the protruding bush of beard and gold-rimmed spectacles until the end credits appeared. It’s a testament to Pattison’s ability to disappear into character, perfectly fulfilling the notion of what it means to play a supporting role to the film’s star.
Though The Lost City of Z closely examines the romance and pitfalls of dreams with a brooding quality, from a lush score by Christopher Spelman to the wide-angle gorgeousness of Darius Khondji, there are times when the film lumbers along for a bit too long. Even if Grey reduces the Amazon adventures of the true story from seven expeditions to just three, balanced against time spent in “civilization,” the audience might feel a bit overwhelmed come the third and most crucial adventure. It may seem to give the film an anti-climactic quality, which it hardly deserves. It may also be frustrating to some that Gray fails to ratchet up the affection in the familial relationship, as he did in films ranging from his debut, Little Odessa (1994), to Two Lovers (2008). However, one must keep in mind that it is essential that the family’s connection fall short. Though the Fawcetts certainly fight with passion over raising a family and an obligation to duty, none of it equates to Fawcett’s obsession with his mystical city of Zed, a representation of the ideal and the unattainable, something that can also be said about the “perfect family.” This is a film, as Nina notes, about the motivational powers of dreams grounded enough in human cynicism yet still buoyed by its romanticism. The Lost City of Z is outstanding and all the more stronger for the boldness in how it examines the innate intricacies and redemptive powers of dreams.
The Lost City of Z runs 140 minutes, is in English, Spanish, Portuguese and German with English subtitles. It is rated PG-13. It opens wide in our South Florida area on Friday, April 21 at the following movie theaters:
- AMC Aventura Mall 24
- AMC Sunset Place 24
- Regal South Beach 18
- CMX Brickell City Center 10
- O Cinema Miami Beach
- Classic Gateway Theater
- Regal Oakwood 18
- AMC Pompano Beach 18
West Palm Beach-Fort Pierce:
- Cinemark Palace 20
- Regal Shadowood
- Movies of Delray 5
- Movies of Lake Worth
- Paragon Wellington 10
- AMC City Place 20
- Downtown at the Mall Gardens Palm 16
- AMC Indian River 24 in Vero Beach
For screenings in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. Bleeker Street invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.