NZIFF ’17/05: THE LOST CITY OF Z

2016; adapted and directed by James Gray; 141 mins

James Gray is an interesting one. He makes big budget, Hollywood genre films that get great praise from the critics but precious little distribution and so consequently, very few people go to see them. This is my first James Gray film and though it has many flaws, my God – I wanna see more!

A biopic spanning twenty years in the life of British explorer, Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), an undecorated British colonel tasked by the Royal Geographical Society with mapping the Amazon and finding the source of the river. He is joined en route by a ragtag party of volunteers, in particular Henry Costin, a man who claims to not have much else to do but does have extensive knowledge of the Amazon.

Upon discovering bits of pottery and architecture at the river’s mouth, Fawcett becomes obsessed with the idea that there may actually be an El Dorado-like civilisation somewhere in the jungle, living in a city he dubs “Z”*. Against the derision of the exploration community, who see the peoples of the Amazon as nothing more than mere “murderous savages”, Fawcett goes on further expeditions down the river to try to discover this lost landmark and further human knowledge of the unknown world.

Straight from the off, hands down – this is the most gorgeous film I’ve seen this year. Darius Khondji‘s cinematography is a humid, sweaty delight when it’s trudging through the jungle and dusty, tobacco-stained grandeur back in England. It feels lived-in, unlike the wet-eyed, grockle shop postcard look of something like The Light Between Oceans, which was all very deep and meaningless.

Also, whereas that film was a pretty, throwback film about pretty people in a sort of naff Terence Malick/Merchant Ivory way, this is much more in the vein of the films from the 1940s, such as the work of John Huston in it’s slower pace and it’s overall more classical cinematic style. It also reminds you of greater movies such as Aguirre, The Wrath of God and 2015’s Embrace of the Serpent which used similar Amazonian journeys to explore themes of man v nature, civilisation v madness and Imperialism v Education. This film is to be applauded for really fleshing out the political themes rather than relying on just action scenes and scary animals. Gray is far more interested in the conflict between the progressive mindset of Fawcett and Costin, who advocate discovery and learning for the betterment of humankind and the Geographical Society, a body which should be doing exactly that, who clearly want to discover playthings for the glory of the British Empire.

Early on, you realise that it will be not just one but a series of trips to the Amazon but rather than becoming wearisome, the film actually got better for me because of the sections between the excursions; at home with Fawcett’s family or his time fighting on the Western Front. As Fawcett grows old and dices with death at the Somme, the film cleverly increases his personal conflict about finding Z. At what cost will he attempt to achieve his ambition? Undermining the relationship with his wife, Nina (a very believably written and played early feminist role for Sienna Miller) or jeopardising his career in the face of the backstabbers and hypocrites who rule the exploration roost.

Charlie Hunnam’s gotten some flak for his central performance but whilst I don’t think he’s the best actor in the world, I was perfectly happy to go with him on the journey. What he does bring to the role is a grounded, everyman quality that is much needed in this movie for the simple reason that, I think, Fawcett’s obsession with Z was so overwhelming, we need a normal person to guide us through. Robert Pattinson does a fine job as Costin, the quiet but stoic supporter to Fawcett, who is sadly rather unexplored himself.

There are flaws. A scene with a gypsy fortune teller is fairly inexplicable: why does Fawcett, this early rationalist, take her predictions so seriously? Fawcett’s relationship with his eldest son, Jack, is a bit confusing overall, which is a shame because each scene they’re in is very good on it’s own.

However! I liked it a lot. I liked that it was having a good old crack at a tough story with what sounded like a bitch of a shoot and on the whole, James Gray has made something visually stunning. A film with brains, excitement and ambition with moments of beauty that really soar.

*Pronounced, in this instance, as ‘ZED’ not ‘ZEE’.

THE LOST CITY OF Z has one more screening at Regent Theatre on Sunday 13th of August at 8.15p.m. and here’s an audio conversation between Gray and Planet of the Apes director, Matt Reeves, talking about the film.

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