Film review: “The Lost City of Z” (2017)

“The Lost City of Z” (2017)

Drama

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Running Time: 141 minutes

Written and Directed by: James Gray

Featuring: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland, Angus Macfadyen, Ian McDiarmid, Franco Nero

Nina Fawcett: “To dream to seek the unknown. To look for what is beautiful is its own reward. A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

James Gray’s latest film could be considered a throw back of sorts to the David Lean style of film making, or even the Francis Ford Coppola style, circa 1978 for a little jungle film called “Apocalypse Now” (1979) – where there was no CGI just practical film making. “The Lost City of Z” (2017) is a real step forward for director Gray as his career in film up to a few years ago could be seen as a study of inner city life over the past thirty years, with such films as “Little Odessa” (1994), “The Yards” (2000) and “We Own the Night” (2007), however it was not until recently when he directed the greatly under rated as well as under seen “The Immigrant” (2013) that he stepped up his scope of story, narrative and plot that made it possible for him to even think about adapting a film like “The Lost City of Z”.

This film is based on the book ‘The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon’ (2009) written by David Grann. It recounts the explorations of British explorer Captain Percy Fawcett who, in 1925, disappeared with his son in the Amazon while looking for an ancient lost city.

The film begins in Ireland, 1905, Percy Fawcett is a young British officer participating in an elk hunt on an Irish baronial estate for the benefit of the visiting Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. A skilled horseman and marksman, he brings down the elk swiftly but is snubbed at the after-hunt party. A year later, Fawcett is sent to London to meet with officials of the Royal Geographical Society. The governments of Bolivia and Brazil are nearly at war over the location of their mutual boundary, and have asked the British government to survey it. Fawcett agrees to lead the survey party to restore his family’s good name. On the ship to Brazil, Fawcett meets Corporal Henry Costin, who has knowledge of the Amazon rainforest. At a large rubber plantation in the jungle owned by the Portuguese nobleman Baron de Gondoriz, the two meet Corporal Arthur Manley, who tells them that the British government advises against further exploration. Fawcett, with several guides and the Amazonian scout Tadjui, complete the mission. Tadjui tells Fawcett stories about a city in the jungle covered in gold and full of people. Fawcett dismisses such stories as insane ravings, but discovers highly advanced broken pottery and some small stone statues in the jungle that convince him Tadjui’s story was true.

Fawcett is praised after his return to England, where his wife, Nina, has given birth to their second son. In the Trinity College Library, Nina discovers a conquistador text which tells of a city deep in the Amazon jungle. Fawcett meets the renowned biologist James Murray, who agrees to back Fawcett’s expedition to the Amazon to find what Fawcett calls “the Lost City of Z”.

I think it is interesting to note that Gray was probably not the first or most obvious choice to make this movie, his first outside of his home town of New York. It appears to be his decision to actually go into the jungle to make this movie as well as shooting on a large format, with an intricate plot that involved many moving parts – but I have to say that the decision for him to be offered the project and for him to accept was inspired – this is one hell of a movie that you just do not see be able to be produced anymore. This is mainly because of the money, the time spent in production as well as the editing process that to becomes elongated.

When making a film of this scale it is vital certain elements are carried out well, the first is assembling a cast that is at once believable, as well as being able to become their characters, especially when talking about a subject that is for all purposes a period piece that involves some exceptionally physical moments. I was not initially convinced by the casting of Charlie Hunnam as the lead, Percy Fawcett, but I am happy to report that he has left his “Sons of Anarchy” (2008 – 2014) persona in the rear view mirror, and has brought this current character to life fully formed in three dimensions. It is impossible not to talk about the remarkable Robert Pattinson as Henry Costin, an actor who really is shining in everything he is appearing in. Since the end of the “Twilight” franchise – he seems to be choosing his roles carefully as can be seen in a batch of films, such as “The Childhood of a Leader” (2015), “The Rover” (2014), “Maps to the Stars” (2014) and “Cosmopolis” (2012). Also look out for flavor of the month Tom Holland, the new Spider-Man, who appears as Percy Fawcett’s eldest son, he makes an impact from the moment he appears, his fate of course is sealed almost from the outset, essestially by being his father’s son.

The narrative of “The Lost City of Z” is as you would expect being based on a book, linear in nature with a distinct three act structure, simply put it follows a progression that is logical. This is extremely important as the themes that are contained within the plot could be seen as complex as well as relevant in the world we are living in. The idealism of one man, who has taken on a mantle he did not seek out is one that is seen almost at every turn in today’s society. Of course what we see in the modern world are people whose identity needs to be linked to a cause or some movement. With Percy is never seems to be about ego, it is all about discovery as well as leaving some mark for his wife and children that will make his and their sacrifice’s worth it. Does he succeed? This is not an easy answer to get from this film as we will never know his true fate, but this film attempts to answer the impossible.

James Gray has executed a special film that at once feels epic but on a very personal level. What happens when you have a story that is set at the turn of last century, while attempting to make this story with technology that was used during the middle of that same century? You get an exciting piece of cinema filmed in actual jungles without the reliance on CGI, just great scenery as well as stellar performances from not only the leads but also the people that have been cast as natives in the foreign land. This has been filmed on film, not digitally processed, whilst I am not an expert the colors pop on screen, in particular the closing thirty minutes are truly astounding, shifting from an idyllic seaside landscape to the depths of the darkest jungles, it is a wonder to behold that anyone could make a film this breathtaking as well as sorrowful and heartbreaking. Once again I am not sure what the thinking was behind Gray’s hiring to helm this film but whatever it was, it was astute and a wise choice. The fact that he was able to bring together a disparate cast of actors that all have extremely different journeys to this project as well as marshaling his crew in different countries shows he is becoming a special filmmaker indeed. I am looking forward to his next few projects, and hope they will be as compelling as this one is.

If you are looking for all the elements of a true story mixed with a boys own adventure that has some exceptionally real aspects to it this is for you. It has some of the aspects of classic Hollywood film-making with a twenty first century twist you may not see coming if you are unaware of this story.

“The Lost City of Z” is showing at the 2017 NZIFF.

 

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