THE LOST CITY OF Z: Eschews Convention In Search Of Greatness
The Lost City of Z is a work about a British explorer that triumphs in visual splendor, forming an identity as a meditative outlook on life.
100 years ago, Percy Fawcett was a well-known man. He had traveled to South America many times as part of the Royal Geographic Society, gaining a reputation for working at a grueling pace and returning from the treacherous area unscathed. Other men succumbed to disease, starvation, or simply vanished in the jungle, but Percy would walk out every time, as if some inhuman constitution powered his mind, body, and soul.
Or at least that’s the legend that built up around him, and as legends often do, they obscured the truth about Fawcett. He was certainly one of the last, great low-tech explorers, finishing his career just as planes and radios were being drug into the jungle. These expeditions were safer, but they lost the sense of awe and mystery that Fawcett carried with him.
Recently, David Grann reignited interest in Fawcett with a New Yorker article and subsequent book, and the film rights were quickly snatched up. Now we have The Lost City of Z, a film that wades confidently into difficult questions, much like the man on which it’s based.
Hacks Its Own Path
The producers who nabbed The Lost City of Z were almost certainly hoping to rival legendary exploration movies of the past, and they got a filmmaker capable of greatness in writer/director James Gray. The atmosphere and style of his last two films, The Immigrant and Two Lovers, were widely praised, and pairing him with a story to match his cinematic scope was an inspired choice. Gray doesn’t falter under the weight of expectation, delivering a film that takes from its predecessors without devolving into replication.
One might expect that Fawcett, who defies conventional thinking in search of an advanced civilization, would most closely resemble Klaus Kinski’s Aguirre, but Gray doesn’t make the story into a myopic descent into obsession. His version of Fawcett (let’s throw out any pretension of fact) goes on a longer, more malleable journey. If anyone had the strongest influence on Z, it was likely David Lean, whose protagonists in Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai see their perspective and priorities change as adventures stack up.
The Lost City of Z is, in many ways, an old-fashioned film. Its pacing is deliberate and it makes no great effort to modernize its characters (with the exception of one scene that feels entirely out of place). The audience is expected to be enthralled by the dilemmas of the time and to find relatability within that world. It’s a kind of trust that’s rarely extended anymore, and in a way, it makes The Lost City of Z feel more otherworldly than futuristic space adventures.
And that’s where the film hits its best notes, as a meditative look at life that provides the audience enough distance to get a clear perspective. Gray, in the end, doesn’t shoot for the swashbuckling adventures of Lean or the mythical flavors of Herzog and more recently Ciro Guerra, but carves out his own take on lost, reaching men.
A Masterclass In Visual Storytelling
As previously mentioned, Gray is known as a sumptuous filmmaker, but with Z he and cinematographer Darius Khondji go beyond pretty pictures to achieve a tightly laced visual narrative worthy of academic examination.
The Lost City of Z is a long, complex film, taking on everything from foolhardy personal ambitions to the dismissive attitudes of colonial Britain (which itself was on the brink of collapse in the early 1900s). As these themes ebb and flow, visual patterns emerge that prime the audience for a shift in focus, or better yet, are twisted to complicate your assumptions. Pay attention to how establishing shots are used when Percy sets out on his Amazonian expeditions; you’ll get a delightful payoff later on.
Not all of it, though, is playing the long term game. Little moments, like the hilarious framing of a man stumbling as he triumphantly claims to be the first person in an area, immediately reminds you of how foolish the endeavors of Percy and his men are. They were not the first men to discover the jungle’s depths; they were just the first white men.
There’s darker moments of winking, too, particularly when World War I occurs and Percy is stuck in the trenches. The film is so thick with these cues and thematic links that they hold much of the movie together, and there’s a sense that not a single moment was wasted, right down to the final, lingering shot.
Z Gets A Little Lost
All that visual work (and a great score to go with it) covers much of the film’s shortcomings, but there’s an unmistakable spark missing from the narrative. The film is never truly gripping, even as it impresses with its depth and scope.
Much of this comes down to the loose portrait of Percy himself, who lacks a clear arc and fades behind the film’s other ambitions. Charlie Hunnam gives an adequate if uninspired performance in the role, neither lifting it above its problems nor letting it fall completely flat. It’s not a bad performance, and by the same token it’s not a poorly written character. Percy just isn’t as distinctive as you would expect a hero explorer to be.
Percy’s muted presence is the biggest symptom of the film’s overall inattention to character, where they are used more to set up thematic points than to be the center of the narrative. Perhaps Gray wasn’t shooting for a character-driven plot, but he doesn’t give the film something to focus on in their place. There’s no overarching theme or central conflict tugging events along, not even the titular (or metaphorical) lost city. Without that, it becomes very difficult to pull off a satisfying ending.
The Lost City of Z has an unmistakable sense of grandeur and depth that sets it apart from cinema’s unambitious pack. Even when its minor flaws do crop up, they are quickly washed over by moments that get your mind fluttering or simply leave you in a state of awe. The film comes up just short of what it’s reaching for, but, well, that turns out to be rather fitting.
Do you think The Lost City of Z found its way? Let us know in the comments!
The Lost City of Z is out now in the U.S. and the U.K. For international release dates, click here.
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