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Lost City of Z, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/26/17 09:17:48

"Old-school adventure that's far more than pulp."
5 stars (Awesome)

Stories like the one James Gray tells with "The Lost City of Z" can often seem to be just as much a relic of bygone eras as the evidence of fallen civilizations that the people playing them out find. The world has fewer unexplored corners, the people doing the exploring have a few more questions about filling them in, and wrestling with these questions doesn't seem like the basis of an entertaining adventure. That relative rarity and difficulty is what makes "Z" such a terrific and different night at the movies; it combines the excitement of early-Twentieth Century pulp with the perspective of the Twenty-First.

The film starts in 1905; when Major Percival Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is a capable soldier but one who has had little opportunity to make a mark or achieve social rank. When offered a commission by the British Geographical Society to map the border between Bolivia and Brazil, he hesitates - it will mean two years away from his wife Nina (Sienna Miller), pregnant with their second child - but ultimately accepts, sailing to South America and making his way up the Amazon with fellow explorers Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley), as well as native guide Tadjui (Pedro Coello). They lose people, but they do finish their mission, with one final surprise: Fawcett finds scraps of pottery, indications of ancient settlement and civilization which give new credence to legends of a city of gold. The desire to find this city, which he calls "Z", will come to define him, leading to further expeditions: One, before the war, sponsored by aristocrat James Murray (Angus Macfadyen); one after, undertaken with now-grown son Jack (Tom Holland).

That's a lot of time to cover, but director James Gray is relaxed with his pacing, allowing the audience to feel that passage even if there's not a lot of padding. As he lays out his themes clearly, he seldom seems to be wasting time. Take the opening scenes, where the Fawcetts are guests at an estate for a hunt. It seems disposable in terms of the actual plot, but Gray establishes so much that will shape the way that he and the audience will see the world and time over the rest of the film: The sight of the hunt is that of the British Empire in its fine uniforms attempting to overwhelm a deer with sheer numbers, while Percy's breaking off from the pack establishes his capability for both excellence and savage obsession, even if there is very little satisfaction in the scene of him standing over the dying animal. He and Nina talk about the lack of medals on his chest - he has never been sent to war - in a way that acknowledges both the attitudes of the time and how these two can see some of the absurdity of it. Before the action proper has truly started, the audience has an unusually nuanced perspective on these characters and the world they live in, and it's been done through action and moments of sly wit, so the time spent doesn't feel like clunky set-up.

This gives Gray a strong enough base to go at the story from two directions. On the one side, it's a well-presented personal story of the chase for glory and respect, built on a number of impressive performances. Charlie Hunnam as Percy is the big one; like a lot of characters in the film, Percy can seem somewhat changeable, but Hunnam is able to zero in on the man's pride, see how it is at the core of the character and on the border of hubris, but not quite arrogance. Gray's script emphasizes Percy's relatively modern attitudes, and Hunnam does a good job of navigating Fawcett being a product of his times even as he shows unusual open-mindedness. That's highlighted in his scenes with Sienna Miller, who doesn't get as many chances as she might to show that Nina is the intelligent, independent partner whom Percy describes, but has the audience believe it because she carries Nina as such, reacting to the sexism around her or Percy's conflicting impulses like someone with plenty of experience rather than someone trying to send an unambiguous signal to the audience. Though they don't spend a lot of time on-screen together, they establish a dynamic that feels right enough that the audience smiles when it's reflected in the younger Fawcett children. Speaking of them, Tom Holland does a nice job taking over for the child actors as Jack reaches his teens and adulthood, making what could seem like a sudden swing from resentment to admiration for his father entirely believable as opposite sides of the same coin. Robert Pattinson, Angus Macfadyen, and Pedro Coello make for good foils to Percy in the jungle, playing distinctive characters who aren't quite central enough that their later absence leaves a hole in the film.

In some ways, that's the easy part; it's the other side, looking at the slow emergence of a less racist, colonialist attitude that often fascinates even more. This sort of story of Amazonian exploration could easily be throwback pulp or revisionist in its more modern attitudes, but Gray threads than needle impressively. While Percy is risking his life, he's also confronting the way that fascination with other cultures inevitably conflicts with one's sense of superiority in everything. This isn't something that is addressed by the characters as explicitly as the more personal matters, but Gray does well not just to show that the base racism that causes many to reject the idea of there ever having been any sort of civilization among the South American natives, but the relative effectiveness of engagement versus combat. Progress is visible, if halting, and though Gray never puts the modern language of diversity into the mouths of men from a century ago, he's able to find a way to tell this story where the ideas are there without diminishing the adventure story.

And it's a good one for fans of this sort of old-school adventure; the filmmakers know which images from these films scratch basic itches and make use of them. There's joy in the camaraderie between Percy and Henry, and genuine excitement when the explorers suddenly find themselves under attack by spears flying out from the riverbank. It's a gorgeous film - Gray and cinematographer Christopher Spelman shoot 35mm on location, and there's something to the greens of the forest that makes them more forbidding than usual, a detail to their dark shades that digital seldom quite captures. Evidence of Z is doled out in tiny samples, often for short enough moments that the audience immediately recognizes that they are meant to doubt the authenticity of what they just saw, and we never see a digital creation of what the city looks like in Fawcett's mind, a canny choice that makes his curiosity more open and genuine, less an obsession to be proven right.

There's an especially nice final flourish, as well, a moment that ends the movie with a punch that many others will try for but not quite land. It's a little masterstroke that points up how terrific the prior two hours plus have been, even if it's not quite so consciously dazzling as more ostentatious pictures along the same lines. Even before then, "The Lost City of Z" is terrific, the sort of film that those who later discover it on video will wish they'd seen on the big screen.

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