THE LOST CITY OF Z
Director: James Gray
Starring: Charlie Hunnman, Sienna Miller, Robert Pattinson, Tom Holland
Out of ****
“For you there is no escape from the Jungle,” an indigenous guide says to explorer/British infantry officer Percy Fawcett on a raft during his sweltering, harrowing first exploration. The Lost City of ‘Z,’ pronounced “zed,” is a deft examination of mankind’s insatiable pursuit of discovery and destruction.
Fawcett is portrayed by Charlie Hunnman, the star of the unfortunate box office bomb across the hall King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. As Fawcett, Hunnman inhabits ostensibly every frame of ‘Z’ in what should be a career making performance. Presented as a calm and reasonable man, Fawcett is ahead of his time in terms of enlightenment but (in his estimation) behind his own time when it comes to his own lofty life pursuits. Like Matthew McConaughey’s Oscar-acceptance speech, Fawcett’s hero is always a few years away. Percy is an undecorated, modestly celebrated British infantry officer with a chip on his shoulder; when in 1906 he is asked to bridge the gap between competing South American Nations (Brazil & Bolivia), by utilizing his experience as a cryptographer to flesh out the two nation’s boarders. Percy's superiors hope this will help defuse territorial conflicts over rubber mining in the region, while Percy longs to bring prestige back to his family's name.
Joining Fawcett on this quest is explorer/biologist Henry Costin, portrayed by a basically unrecognizable Robert Pattinson - developing unexplained sores on his cheek while looking every bit like he drinks himself to sleep every night. A side-note: I rather enjoyed Mr. Twilight’s performance in the little seen and otherwise unremarkable Guy Pierce vehicle The Rover a few years back; he's proving to be a more than capable character actor when not preening in young-adult schlock. Here he serves up another scenery stealing yet understated turn, quite literally stumbling into the film drunk off his ass – comically unveiling himself to Fawcett aboard a ship bound for “Amazonia” a full week after they had originally set-sail. As these two adventurers get a taste for what is unknown to the modern world, Costin briefly becomes somewhat of a personification of Fawcett’s id; upon first return when asked by Percy if he’ll join him on a second expedition, Costin growls:
“the jungle is hell, but one kind of likes it."
Their first trip down the river is marred by attacks from natives, illness and squalor. It’s a multi-year voyage for these men, one that Fawcett at first deems beneath a man of his prowess and rank. Gray depicts the explorer as man who was never satisfied with the conquests at his feet; his life is a series of checkpoints that he gets to months or years after he sought them. It takes the aforementioned Amazonian guide telling him of a lost city, never before touched by the white man, for Percy to develop an unwavering purpose in and appreciation for discovery. Fawcett reaches the end of the river and discovers remnants of an ancient civilization; evidence of a city he dubs ‘Z,’ he quickly vows to return.
Percy is depicted as a man motivated by numerous internal demons. The years the jungle takes away from time with his wife (played by an exceptional Sienna Miller) and three kids add more weight to the importance of discovering the lost city – the fear of squandering that precious time for naught descends upon him with each passing hellish-jungle day. The elitists who scoff at the idea of “savages,” ever being able to construct a city to rival European civilization’s advancement, while at the same time under-appreciating Fawcett at every turn, add extra motivation as he feeds off their ignorance and doubt. The concept of ‘Z’ serves as a metaphor for his ambitious goals which he falls just short of; it is not until Fawcett resigns himself to the idea that he’ll never achieve what he’s sought that the true spoils of his efforts reveal themselves.
Lost City's old-school pacing is like a breath of fresh air; the slow trot complements Gray’s tactic of eliding more clichéd moments of the standard biopic. Only the anecdotes of Fawcett’s life that fit the director’s vision of the man he was are included here. The pertinent elements of the decade and a half of Fawcett’s life that we witness, fill out the 145 minute runtime without a second being wasted. We alternate between jungle danger and stuffy London boardrooms; the settings' contrasts place us in the shoes of our hero; listening to the high-society stiffs pontificate about Amazonia without ever having traversed it, we too begin longing to set-forth on adventure again. About two thirds of the way through, these contrasting environments are abruptly interrupted, as the film pauses for 15 minutes and we are brought to the front-lines of World War I in France. A jarring, explosive metaphorical sequence that halts the film with blunt force; all that we in the audience had been enamored by put on hold, just like the war halting the lives and ambitions of our protagonists.
When seeing the film a second time, I was amazed at how easily I could recall each upcoming scene; there are no wasted moments here, it’s as lean as any 2.5hour picture you’ll find. Beautifully photographed by Darius Khondji; during my first viewing, the projector shutoff and the lights went up with only 20 minutes to go, the audience was outraged as the theater staff took a moment to correct whatever problem was causing this horribly timed malfunction. I was as frustrated as anyone, until the lights went off again and the film resumed, and to our delight we got to re-experience one of the film's most majestic sequences: Fawcett’s young daughter chases after the car that is whisking her father off to his final adventure, a low angle shot focused on her running, set across a sprawling sunrise; Composer Maurice Ravel's Daphnis Et Chloe: Lever Du Jour complements a cross-cut of tracking shots utilizing both road and rail, as we are swept into the next jungle vista.
In Lost City, James Gray surgically ties together all that drove the pursuits of Percy Fawcett and postulates that his ultimate fate is not what should be pondered. A dire moment of peril in the film's final reels reveal a man that has come to to terms with his destiny. Percy and his son facing seemingly mortal danger, which is juxtaposed with a distant memory enlightening us as to how Percy in that grave moment, is taking solace in his and ultimately mankind’s purpose. Fawcett and his peers are the embodiment of what has driven human civilization forward; the tireless journey of life and discovery. The film spans the best and worst of man, our insatiable thirst for discovery, anchored by an unfortunate propensity for “destroying what we are here to discover.” Gray takes us on a journey where the validation of Fawcett's work is revealed to both he and us simultaneously; that aforementioned familiar voice is evoked as a reminder of what brought him back to Amazonia time after time:
"To dream, to seek the unknown, to look for what is beautiful is it’s own reward. A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a Heaven for?”
The Lost City of Z is a monument to what has brought us this far and what keeps us going; it is all about the journey, not the finish-line.