The Lost City of Z

Presented at the 2017 Atlanta Film Festival to applause at the end credits, James Gray’s beautiful and thoughtful large scale expedition feature The Lost City of Z takes you up the river with explorer Percival Fawcett in 1925 to find out what’s there.

Zed. It’s a movie about Englishmen with British accents so they pronounce it “Zed.” Thusly: The Lost City of Zed. Which means, thank fuck, that’s it not another goddamn zombie movie.

This adventure is based on a true story drawn from a non-fiction book by David Grann. Percival Fawcett was an English military officer and member of the Royal Geographical Society specializing in surveying and mapping. After several expeditions to the Amazon he began to form a theory about a lost civilization in the jungle and started looking for artifacts and ruins. He gathered financing and set off on a trip to find the “lost city” in 1925 with his son Jack and was never heard from again.

“…you can almost smell the oppressively hot tropical landscape.”

It’s a pleasant surprise to encounter a David Lean style sweeping epic. The pace is slower. The cinematography lingers on dusty rays of light cutting through lush jungle like a machete. Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now meets Lawrence of Arabia with a taste of The Emerald Forest.

Fawcett was a true believer and burned feverishly with his obsession for finding a lost city in the Amazon. As played by Hunnam he’s part tent revival preacher and part raving lunatic with his mad confidence in the endeavor. Less scientist than conspiracy theorist, he was an intrepid explorer for queen and country and for the glory, always for the glory.

The role of Fawcett had been passed around to Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch, who both dropped out for reasons, but Charlie Hunnam turns out to be a great leading man who’s sharpened his acting skill over the years. He carried 7 seasons of the FX “Hamlet on Harleys” drama Sons of Anarchy. He’s the perfect captain for this grand scale picture.

Robert Pattinson is actually marvelous as Henry Costin. He turns in a truly standout performance as Fawcett’s aide de camp and fellow hearty adventurer. I didn’t recognize him at first under the beard and glasses, but there’s the man himself, acting his ass off with intense humor and presence and not a sparkle to be found anywhere. Mr. Pattinson, actor: welcome.

Angus Macfadyen (who once played Robert the Bruce) has gotten quite portly, which works in his role as the whiny biologist James Murray who fancies himself the equal of younger adventurers and joins one of the Amazonian expeditions. In real life Murray disappeared during a subsequent Arctic expedition in 1913 having mutinied against the captain of his ship and walked off across the ice and never made it home. Seems like kind of an asshole. Frozen asshole in the middle of an icefield just now, one would guess.

Sienna Miller plays Fawcett’s longsuffering wife Nina. No shrinking violet, she’s presented as strong and independent. Tom Holland is Percy’s oldest son Jack. Some not-to-be-named nerds in the audience kept thinking “hey, there’s Spiderman!”

Hunnam and Pattinson have both talked about the rigors of filming in the jungle in Columbia and the real suffering involved in making the movie. Respect for the practical approach as Gray could as easily have shot green screen and created a CGI jungle in post. It pays off richly, you can almost smell the oppressively hot tropical landscape.

As the story winds toward it’s conclusion, I have to think Gray knew people would have read about Fawcett before heading to the theater so the outcome of the last expedition is not a reveal. In fact we do not know to this day what happened to Percy and Jack. Gray could have painted any picture and been equally right or wrong. He chose to handle it as a rite, a philosophical passing on, perhaps to a new life, perhaps to another world, perhaps death. I thought of Dave Bowman crossing into the monolith with images of his life flashing back and forth: curiously sweet and comforting, all things considered.

The Lost City of Z (2017) Directed by: James Gray. Written By: James Gray (screenplay), David Grann (Novel). Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Tom Holland, Sienna Miller, Robert Pattinson.

8 out of 10

Look for The Lost City of Z in wide release April 14, 2017.

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