Thursday, May 04, 2017

The Lost City of Z

THE LOST CITY OF Z (James Gray, 2016)

An undecorated British soldier whose family name was tarnished by his father’s drinking and gambling, Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) seeks to make his mark when London’s Royal Geographical Society asks him to map the the border separating Bolivia and Peru. The assignment in THE LOST CITY OF Z offers the promise of respect and glory that has so far eluded him. Although it means leaving his pregnant wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and their son for more than a year working in the field beginning in 1906, Fawcett accepts. Deep in the Amazon he and his aide-de-camp Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) come across what might be artifacts from a hidden city his native scout spoke of, but circumstances prevent them from exploring further.

Fawcett remains enthusiastic about returning to search for a place that sounds to some like the mythical El Dorado. Years later Nina’s discovery of a document fuels his belief that there is an advanced place in the jungle that would upend western civilization’s perception of what they think to be a savage land. Nina hopes that her part in building support for another exploit in the Amazon can be parlayed into joining her husband, but despite his belief in their equality in mind, he rejects her suggestion that she can endure the physical hardships in such an undertaking. Again his journey to Amazonia hints at the promise of a find, but he comes up short. Nearly two decade after his search, Fawcett is funded for another opportunity.

Based on a true story told in David Grann’s book of the same name, THE LOST CITY OF Z promises a grand adventure that plumbs the depths of a man’s obsession. Fawcett may have a smidgen of Indiana Jones in him--a single shot, intentionally or not, mirrors one from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK--but the hero and the film have more in common with the explorers in Werner Herzog’s AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD and FITZCARRALDO. The persistent tugging at Fawcett’s soul to achieve something great could be what allows him to make a singular discovery in history. It could also be a touch of madness, which certainly inflicts Klaus Kinski as an expedition leader in AGUIRRE and might be diagnosed in his rubber baron endeavoring to have indigenous Amazonians drag a steamship over a hill in FITZCARRALDO.

Writer-director James Gray makes clear the daunting nature of Fawcett’s efforts but is coy when it comes to the strange experiences the protagonist has. THE LOST CITY OF Z possesses a dream-like quality enhanced by a hushed sound design that invites watching in a state between being awake and lost in a reverie. There are moments in which it could be possible that what is presented is fevered illusion instead of reality. Gray doesn’t demarcate whether what transpires under stress and strain in the wild Amazonian environment is as tangible as conversations in the shadowy, tamed interiors of England and Ireland. Hunnam plays Fawcett with firm and fervent belief, building a man who one would be confident to place trust in even as he might be self-deluded and bringing about his own ruin. Miller’s performance is key because Nina bears the burden of what consumes Fawcett yet puts her faith in him nonetheless.

Gray and cinematographer Darius Khondji evoke a bygone era for this story and in cinema with painterly shot compositions and lighting that provide an unending source of pleasure in their own right. THE LOST CITY OF Z is constructed of sumptuous and often very dark visuals, which underline the mystery and the desire to dive inside into the unknown to see what others haven’t spotted. The knockout final shot does not clarify what to make of the characters’ outcomes but instead emphasizes again the seductive power of vanishing into a place ripe for discovery.

Grade: B+

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