THE LOST CITY OF Z – Review
Excuse the twisting of a beloved comedian’s signature tune, but this new film’s theme could be “Hooray for Captain Fawcett, the Bolivian explorer!”. That’s Captain Percy Fawcett, to be specific. He’s the newest movie jungle adventurer, in the vein of Jungle Jim and Indiana Jones, except he was a real person. And he was the subject of a recent best-selling book. Now his exploits from nearly one hundred years ago have finally made it to the big screen. So is his quest to find THE LOST CITY OF Z worthy of a far less treacherous trek to the local multiplex?
In 1906 Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) was a respected member of the British Royal Artillery, especially after shooting a stag during a big hunting competition. He’s got a beautiful supportive wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and an adorable tot named Jack. Unfortunately his military career has stalled, mainly due, as his superiors say, to his “unfortunate choice of ancestors”. Then opportunity knocks when he is assigned to the Royal Geographic Society to lead a mapping expedition to determine the exact border between Boliva and Brazil. After bidding his family adieu for the next few years, he boards a ship for South America. At sea he meets his assigned guide, the slightly soused Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson). The march through the hot, humid South American jungle is arduous. But just as they fear the mission is lost, they stumble upon a rubber plantation. Its owner (Franco Nero) shows his support by donating one of his native worker (really a slave) to guide them deeper into the jungle. The next part of the journey is even more dangerous as the team is tested by disease, hunger, the piranha filled river, and attacks from native tribes. When the finally settle on the shore, Fawcett finds bits of pottery and learns of the legend of a hidden city deep in the jungle, a city called Zed. But the mapping job is done and they must return to England. There Nina introduces him to his new son Brian. When Fawcett gives a speech at the RGS, he tries to rouse its members into funding another expedition to find Zed. Only one high-ranking member is interested, the celebrated arctic explorer James Murray (Angus Macfadyen). But the out of shape, ill-prepared Murray almost sabotages the mission, and Fawcett sends him back. More information is learned , but Zed remains lost. Returning home he must deal with the threat of legal action by Murray, as Fawcett meets his new daughter. Home life is tense due to the resentment from his now teenage son Jack (Tom Holland). After another trek to the jungle, Percy is called back into service during World War I. Near-blindness from mustard gas exposure seems to put an end to his search for Zed, but now Jack wants to continue the mission. Can the father/son explorers finally complete Percy’s goal and prove the world the existence of that glorious hidden city?
Hunnam, a veteran of TV and film (“Sons of Anarchy”, PACIFIC RIM, but widely known far almost being cast as Christian Grey) gives a performance that proves that he’s much more than a hunky leading man. He shows us the stiff-upper-lip determination (his speech to the rowdy members of the RGS is riveting) of Fawcett while making him more than an adventure cliché. Yes, he’s focused, but we see a man with regrets, with guilt over leaving his family while chasing a dream. I’ll be interested in what he does with another celebrated Brit when we see his take on King Arthur in a few weeks. Much like her lauded role in AMERICAN SNIPER, Miller is once again the woman waiting and “keeping the home fires burning”. Her Nina must be supportive while hiding her sadness at only seeing her love for briefs visits between expeditions. It’s not until the film’s midpoint when she finally vents her frustrations in a futile plea to join him on his quest. Pattinson, almost unrecognizable in his bushy beard, brings some needed humor to what’s basically a sidekick character (the likable lush is gone after the initial meeting at sea), And before he dons that red and blue bodysuit for a full feature, Tom Holland delivers terrific work as the conflicted eldest Fawcett son. He goes effortlessly from sullen, angry teen to a mature young man eager to join his father, even prodding him to pursue his dream once more (not sure about the bushy ‘stache, though). The most welcome surprise may be Macfayden as the story’s hissable villain. Murray goes from avid advocate (the old “Dutch uncle”) to pathetic but destructive burden on the trek. Once he’s back from the trip he’s vain and vindictive, a man who only cares about keeping his reputation untarnished. Macfayden gives us the hurt child wrapped in pomposity. There’s a couple of great cameos from the aforementioned Nero and STAR WARS vet Ian McDiarmid (Palpatine himself) as one the RGS leaders.
This is quite a change of pace for director James Gray (who also wrote the screenplay based on the best seller from David Grann). He’s best known for his gritty urban dramas such as WE OWN THE NIGHT and LITTLE ODESSA. He captures the sweeping epic nature of the tale (helped considerably be Darius Khondji’s lush cinematography), but the film becomes too restrained during the drawing-room conversations between the jungle jaunts. At times this feels like a PBS “Masterpiece Theatre” miniseries edited and enhanced for the cinema. The pacing is off, it seems whenever something interesting’s about to occur in the wild, we’re suddenly back in the UK. The locales along the Amazon are fascinating , but there’s none of the mystical beauty, so well captured in the recent Oscar-nominated EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT. A detour into the trenches of WW II should have been trimmed to improve the story’s flow. There’s a piranha encounter (too hard to see in the swirling water) and locales tossing spears and shooting arrows, but, despite what the marketing folks are pushing, this isn’t another tale of our favorite fedora-wearing archaeologist with a bullwhip. The period sets and costumes are very impressive, but THE LOST CITY OF Z is an often interesting historical travelogue in need of some “z” (for zip and zest).
3 Out of 5