Film Review: “The Lost City of Z” is Intriguing and Looks Great

“The Lost City of Z” is distributed by Amazon Studios and Bleecker Street.

Adventure films are a staple of United States cinema, although many of them end up being more fantastical or serialized in nature, such as the classic and wonderful “Indiana Jones” series. James Gray’s “The Lost City of Z” opts for a more realistic approach, and ends up intriguing and fascinating the viewer with its real-life tale. Well worth the time, but never managing to hit greatness, Gray’s piece still effectively fuels the brain’s desires for danger and adventure among the over-prevalence of modern-day CGI-fueled blockbusters without becoming too generic.

“The Lost City of Z” is based on the novel of the same name by David Grann, which in turn was inspired by the real life figure Percy Fawcett. In the early 20th Century, Fawcett undertook a series of expeditions — originally, he was sent on a mission by the British trying to simply survey the boundary between Bolivia and Brazil in order to help the two nations avert war. Fawcett eventually finds evidence pointing to the possible existence of a hidden city in Amazonia, which he calls “Z”, and begins a decades long quest to find it.

The biggest problem with “Z” is also one of its strengths, and that’s the underlying story. The story of Percy Fawcett is one that Gray manages to grapple with a number of underlying themes — discovery, obsession, prestige, class, honor, family, sacrifice, and even throws in a bit of gender-role issues and the futility of conflict. The story spans the timeline of 1905 to 1925, which as we all know was a troubled time that also was filled with change. World War I happened, women got the right to vote, and many new discoveries in science were being made. The film touches on some of this, but doesn’t manage to go too in-depth on this background. Fawcett’s wife Nina is frustrated that she cannot take credit for her assistance of her husband, that she is not allowed to accompany her husband on expeditions, and that she must remain at home with the children, but this is never really developed. World War I happens, and we get a marvelous sequence of charging enemy trenches, but it feels shoehorned in and only as a necessary part to help show Fawcett’s true desire to return to Amazonia, as well as his struggles over his duty to his family. The film jumps to each next point in the timeline almost dutifully, presenting us with fantastic sequences with a lot it would like to say, but most it can never fully articulate, unless it is about class, prestige, or obsession. The story still manages to whet your appetite for adventure, and you’re eager to see where Gray will take you next in the story, even if you don’t lose yourself entirely in Fawcett’s journey. Gray is a fantastic director and storyteller even when the script is a little light. I can’t wait to see more of what he does.

The writing and eloquence of these latter three themes works because of the fantastic performers. Charlie Hunnam turns in a strong performance as Fawcett, and through his performance we can tell that Fawcett is truly obsessed with discovery, ranking up in class, regaining family honor, and trying his hardest to provide for his family. He also shows well that Fawcett never balances these priorities well, and that it comes at the expense of those whom he cares about, most often his family. Hunnam is truly great in this role — I think he should play more like it.

The supporting cast is not as well developed in the writing, but they all do pretty well with their parts. Robert Pattinson is effective, and often funny, in his part as Hunnam’s guide, companion, and later friend. He showcases his concern for Fawcett, and his utter desire never to go on adventuring again later in the movie when he’s simply had enough of that life, in a splendid manner. He gets a lot of crap for his “Twilight” infamy, but Pattinson is a good actor in his own right. Sienna Miller’s Nina Fawcett is great in her few scenes — she easily shows us her emotions or her character’s exasperation with her situation through just a look or a single line (she’s wonderful in the finale). It’s not a revolutionary role for her to play, but she makes the most of the supportive wife stock-character by imbuing her with a longing for adventure and displaying her perception of equality ferociously when the times truly won’t call for her being more than a wife and a mother. Tom Holland, Ian McDiarmid, Angus Macfayden and more get their chance to play and all do effectively, but Hunnam, Pattinson, and Miller get the best material and play it very well.

I would like to dedicate this paragraph to my favorite aspect of the movie — the cinematography by Darius Khondji, which is so freaking spectacular that you could hang any single frame from this film on your wall and call it art. Khondji has shot “Seven”, “Evita”, “Midnight in Paris”, and “Amour”, among many other films, and he brings his A-game with him to everything he shoots. “The Lost City of Z” might be his finest — framing the setting sun over the tropics, grimy war scenes, and rainy expeditions all in the same movie and getting the tone and lighting just right for every scene is difficult, but he does it again and again in the movie. An Oscar nomination for this work would be well-deserved, and anything less is injustice.

The film also boasts fantastic production design, costume design, and is well paced for its length. Every set feels authentic, and I particularly enjoyed the construction of a crude “opera house” in the middle of the jungle, run by a powerful rubber baron. I love British period sets, but that opera house was one of the most fascinating single constructions I’ve seen in a movie in quite some time. The film’s sound is also brilliantly mixed to perfection, and the sound team basically places you smack-dab in the middle of the jungle with their work. Talk about immersion, those jungle sequences are immersive, particularly thanks to that splendid sound.

All-in-all, “The Lost City of Z” is a good film. I wanted more, but the amount of material that Gray had to work with was likely difficult to get across everything the film wanted to do. I recommend it to those who enjoy adventures, particularly ones that are more realistic, or to those who enjoy movies on the psychology of obsession. Give it a shot — you just might get even more lost in it than I did.

Grade:

Letter-scale: B
Star Scale: 3 of 4 stars