NYFF Preview: ‘The Lost City of Z’

The Lost City of Z is a historical adventure movie directed by James Gray. It is based on the life of Colonel Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), an early 20th-century British explorer. He spent his life searching for a hidden civilization within the Amazon Jungle. His journey becomes not just a quest for knowledge, but a challenge to Victorian values and assumptions. It was the closing film of this year’s New York Film Festival. The Lost City of Z is set for a far off release date in April 2017.

James Gray’s film has much of the structure of a typical biopic. Decades of Fawcett’s life are depicted as he makes several journeys to Amazonia to make his name. At first, he is merely surveying the border between Bolivia and Brazil in some of the wildest and dangerous parts of the world. At the end of his trip, he discovers evidence of a lost city he nicknames “Z”. Having become a celebrity for his feat, Fawcett devotes his life to finding the city and disproving white assumptions that the natives are just savages. However, he is held back by family obligation, misfortune, and World War.

The Lost City of Z is a competently-made drama anchored by a solid cast. Robert Pattinson is unrecognizable in a thick beard and glasses as Fawcett’s aide-de-camp, Henry Costin. Sienna Miller plays Nina Fawcett, whose outspoken feminist views give the character more of a job than just “the wife”. Tom Holland plays Jack, Fawcett’s son, in a break from superhero films. Still, it is Charlie Hunnam who is the draw here. He performs his role with an intense and dashing take on obsession. His character is a complex man, juggling his liberal views with a patriotic sense of duty to the very country he hopes to challenge.

A Classical Adventure Film

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The Lost City of Z has several greater themes. Fawcett’s own life was a struggle against Victorian classism, racism, and sexism. But the film uses them mainly to give greater context to what is a pretty standard adventure story. Much like Fawcett himself, all you really want is for him to go back to Bolivia every time he is forced to return to Europe. The Lost City of Z is at its most compelling when the characters are deep in the hostile jungle, barely surviving on the edge of the world.

The characters dodge arrows from hostile natives, survive noxious tropical diseases that cause them to puke blood, see friends devoured whole by piranhas. In the most surreal and memorable moment of The Lost City of Z, Fawcett and Costin find an opera staged out in the middle of a deadly rain forest. My own brief research (his Wikipedia page) into Fawcett shows the movie could have been even weirder and wilder. He claimed to have killed twenty-six-foot anacondas and found bizarre cat-dog fusion animals. James Gray keeps the film from falling into magical realism.

Since The Lost City of Z is a biopic, it suffers from the same typical issues. Certain side characters are less developed than others as many decades and themes were poured into one movie. But ultimately the Lost City of Z is a very Old Hollywood kind of movie. It feels like a 1950s B-grade adventure given a professional sheen of on-location filming in actual South American jungles and some higher purpose in themes. A simple movie like this should be more marketable and mainstream.


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