Lost City of Z: Not Bad, Should Have Been Better


Directed by James Gray
Amazon Studios, 141 minutes, PG-13

In tone and subject matter, The Lost City of Z often evokes other films about intrepid individuals far from their comfort zones: Fitzcaraldo, Gorillas in the Mist, Apocalypse Now…. It's not as good as any of those, rather a classic 3 out of 5 stars film: decent, but not dazzling. Oddly, when it falters it's because it should have been even longer than 141 minutes—or else considerably shorter.

The central tales—based on actual events—are compelling. In 1906, the British government tapped an undistinguished army officer, Captain Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), to spend several years seeking the source of South America's Rio Verde River. (Britain had been asked to survey the area as a way of averting a war between Bolivia and Brazil but its intentions were not entirely benign—Bolivian tin was an in-demand commodity.) Fawcett arrived, only to be informed that his government had aborted the project as too dangerous. Fawcett nevertheless persisted and, with the aid of Captain Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and Corporal Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley), located the river's source by traveling into parts of Amazonia no Europeans had ever seen before. This made Fawcett the darling of the Royal Geographic Society (RGS)—sort of. Fawcett's claim that he also glimpsed the ruins of a lost civilization whose past glories surpassed those of Europe divided the RGS at a time in which prevailing Eurocentrism held that Caucasians were superior to non-whites and always had been.

Unfortunately for Fawcett's team, one RGS member, biologist James Murray (Angus Macfadyen) was intrigued enough to insist on taking part of a Fawcett return expedition in 1911-13. At the time, Murray was a leading light in the RGS for having taken part on one of Shackleton's Antarctica sojourns. In truth, Murray was a blowhard self-promoter who was as prepared for the rigors of the tropics as a polar bear for a visit to the Everglades. Fawcett sent an emaciated Murray home, an act of charity for which Murray later tried to sue to divert attention from his own failures. Fawcett made seven trips to Bolivia before he and his eldest son Jack (Tom Holland) disappeared in 1925, presumably eaten by a tribe practicing ritual cannibalism*. 

Perhaps you see both the promise and challenges of a Fawcett biopic. The material offers very rich possibilities, but which part or parts can one actually bring to the screen? All films elide time and the challenge facing director James Gray was whether to offer tantalizing appetizers or a full-course meal. He served both and that was a mistake. The Lost City of Z highlights the three trips I mentioned. Fair enough—they were the most noteworthy. But Gray also shoehorns various side stories: a military career stymied by humble birth, the arrogance of the British class system, the limits of anthropological knowledge in the early 20th century, the strains on Fawcett's family life, the frustrated ambition of Fawcett's feminist wife Nina (Sienna Miller), the coming of World War One, and simmering Oedipal conflicts between Percy and Jack. All of these are worthy topics, but not if all you to do is give a nod and a wink.

Gray broke the current screen norm of 100-110 minutes, so why not add another 20-30 minutes to give subjects such as Nina's feminism a deeper treatment instead of presenting a tokenistic firebrand in Edwardian corsets? Similarly, Jack's resentment of his father goes from bitterness to slavish admiration so fast that it hardly seems plausible. (Not to mention Holland's cheesy faux mustache that makes him look like a choirboy in drag.) Alternatively, Gray could have pared the material. Do we need more than a footnote about a middling army career for someone we'd never have known were it not for his Bolivian adventures? Could collage and montage have been used to meld the journeys and overcome the problem that it feels like we are seeing three separate loosely connected films?  

 Still, The Lost City of Z has moments of fascination and I'll admit that I never gave much thought to Fawcett prior to viewing it. Fawcett's perilous encounters with Amazonian tribes made me ponder whether explorers such as Fawcett were intrepid pioneers of knowledge or madmen. The film is rich visually and lots pique the appetite. I suspect, though, that most viewers will share my view that The Lost City of Z should have somehow been better.

Rob Weir

* As a tragic ironic footnote, John D. Rockefeller Jr. financed the lion's share of Fawcett's last visit. His grandson, Michael—son of New York politician, Nelson—also became an explorer. In 1961, New Guinea cannibals devoured Michael.   

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