Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Tom Holland & Sienna Miller
Review Author: Shaun
There is a ton to admire in The Lost City of Z, although even good performances and some sumptuous cinematography aren’t enough to help it reach its lofty aspirations. What we end up with is a near-miss, a movie worth seeing for those already intrigued by the material but not strong enough to stand on its own, weighed down by wooden dialog and surprisingly one-dimensional characters. And yet The Lost City of Z is very far from a failure. The material could have easily been sensationalized into a British Indiana Jones who swings through the jungle on snake-vines and finds tribal graves filled with alien bones – before the inevitable saving of the world. Although it’s encouraging that we’re saved from the ludicrous speed of Hollywood adventure epics, The Lost City of Z fails to live up to the predecessors that have explored similar waters.
For history buffs like myself, the plot offers a fascinating starting point – an ambitious young career army man out to make a mark for the moribund British Empire in the early 20th century. While our hero, Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), looks for opportunities to impress the top brass, Europe slides unwittingly toward global war as he’s sent off to the edge of nowhere to scout the jungles of Bolivia. But this isn’t some aspirational act of exploration, as his job is mainly to press British interests in the middle of the rapidly expanding rubber trade. After stumbling upon some bizarre European imports, including an opera in the jungle, Percy ignores the advice to abort the mission and return to England, deciding instead to press on up the river to properly scout the region.
Werner Herzog fans will have a hard time not seeing two of his great films floating right along with Fawcett on the river – Aguirre the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. Both dealt with the obsession of fleshing out the mysteries of Amazonia and misunderstandings between the two very different cultures. But while Herzog was able to dissect his anti-heroes and pinpoint the madness that drove them, The Lost City of Z doesn’t make much of an effort to find similar depth with Percy. After finding some pottery in the middle of the jungle, is he overcome with a sense of wonder and awe about a potentially lost civilization? Not so much. Upon returning to England, the only thing that seems to motivate him is the establishment class telling him there’s nothing there, not the desire for illumination.
But where the saggy middle portion of The Lost City of Z really weighs down the experience is the ham-handed family dynamic, a pedestrian retelling of stories we’ve heard before. At the center, the screenplay plays lip-service to Percy’s wife, Nina who is actually the one who makes the biggest discovery in the film – but does it off-camera. In one of the most bizarre developments of the film, Percy proudly declares that it’s his wife that discovered an 18th-century letter from a conquistador, the contents of which will actually propel his next exploration.
Writer and Director James Gray definitely goes out of his way to point out the often absurdly misogynistic nature of the time period, yet glossing completely over this discovery with a couple lines of dialog is closer to script malfeasance than gender commentary. How the hell did she make the discovery that the domineering men couldn’t while wearing a dress and confined to the female-only balcony? The movie doesn’t even attempt to provide an answer, possibly because it could actually be a more interesting story than the main plot. The same depth is applied to the relationship with the sons, right up to the inevitable scene when Percy’s eldest dramatically calls him out for not being around.
The remarkable story of the real Percy Fawcett has always begged out for the full cinematic treatment, and Gray’s film is an earnest telling at the very least. Even while never fully engrossed, I was more than happy to see that Percy remained in the realm of reality as he plunged deeper and deeper into Amazonia. Ultimately, Gray points out that he’s considerably better at telling the story visually, leaving the dialog often seeming inorganically tilted towards the audience. Despite an inspired final act that includes some of the best shots in the film, The Lost City of Z falls short of creating the intense fascination that would have driven a man to spend nearly his entire life chasing ghosts in the jungle.