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The Lost City of Z

The Lost City of Z is based on the adventures of Col. Percy Fawcett, a British Explorer from the early-20th Century who many believe served as inspiration for Indiana Jones.  I love the Indiana Jones franchise--the first and third films, anyway--and Z does fall into the action-adventure genre.   But where Steven Spielberg's classics hearken to Saturday morning serials--part homage, part satire, all action--James Gray's true-life odyssey is more contemplative, more poetic, more Zen--more Terrence Malick.  Both the drama and the action scenes have a dreamlike quality.  It took a little while to get in synch with the pace and tone of the film, which is is a throwback to the Golden Age of Hollywood historical epics with a touch of Masterpiece Theater, but once we did, it drew us in.

We meet Percy (Charlie Hunnam) in 1905 on a stag hunt with fellow British soldiers, where his intelligence, strategizing, and marksmanship are evident, as is his ambition to return lost honor to the Fawcett name.  Loving wife Nina (Sienna Miller) tries to cheer him, saying some life-threatening situation, a war or something, would come up, and that she and their son Jack would stand by him (though Jack, as he grows, isn't happy about having an absentee dad).  Unexpected opportunity knocks: Brazil and Bolivia are close to war over their murky common border, putting colonial rubber plantations at risk.  The Royal Geographic Society is selected as a neutral third party to map the border, and Fawcett is recruited, due to his proven cartographic skills.

He sets off with seasoned explorer Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley), and a team of Englishmen and natives.  Dodging arrows, disease, and wildlife, their trek up the Verde River is a heart of darkness experience, highlighted at the headwaters, where they discover relics--pottery, carved faces in trees--of an ancient culture, mystically guarded by a black panther.  Returning to London a hero, Fawcett is nonetheless jeered by RGS members when he claims there may be a non-Caucasian civilization that predated the British Empire.  An established explorer, James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), argues in Fawcett's behalf, and a second excursion is mounted to find Z (or Zed, in British parlance).  Murray proves more nemesis than benefactor, though, and the expedition becomes an expensive failure, setting Percy's star in another descent.  He returns to his growing Fawcett brood, but they provide little solace to Percy's obsessions.

Opportunity knocks again when WWI breaks out.  Fawcett valiantly leads his brigade against the Germans, but he is hit with chlorine gas, blinding him.  He receives a field promotion and returns home, again a hero, but resigned to retirement and family life.  Miraculously, though, his eyesight returns, and his son Jack, now 22 (played at this age by Tom Holland), has resolved his abandonment issues and is also bitten by jungle fever.  He nags his father, arguing that the two of them should complete the Amazonia quest Percy began almost two decades earlier.  Percy cautions that they will have to seek approval of a higher authority: Nina, who, of course, can't say no.  The RGS and Americans, including John D. Rockefeller, provide funding and the two, traveling light and fast, set off on their fateful excursion.

The Lost City of Z trailers raise swashbuckler expectations, and while there are some harrowing scenes, it is more accurately a historical biography.  As such, it has to establish the narrative, a difficult thing to do during action sequences.  As Gray presents him, Fawcett is sympathetic toward and respectful of native cultures, arguing against the ethnocentrism prevalent at the time.  (Ironically, the only negative reviews we have seen for Z are from critics whose politically-charged jeers resemble those initially heard from the Royal Geographic Society more than a century ago.)  Another tide of that time was international suffrage, which Gray reflects in Nina, though she presents a confused picture--fiercely outspoken and intelligent, yet her "independence" is displayed in her ability to stay at home and raise the kids following Percy's unilateral decisions to leave them for years at a time.

Charlie Hunnam is earnest, forthright, and serviceable, but he lacks the charisma of Benedict Cumberbatch or Brad Pitt (both at times mentioned to star in the film).  Sienna Miller is strong yet sympathetic in the ambiguous role of Nina.  Robert Pattinson, unrecognizable behind a beard and wire-rim glasses, is excellent, bringing philosophical heart to the excursions.  The dialogue is stilted, yet fitting for the film and the period--e.g. Percy is "father" not "dad"--it never strikes a false note, and it fits in well with Darius Khondji's lush cinematography that brings both gauzy Edwardian London and verdant Amazonia to life.  Much like Fawcett's quest, The Lost City of Z's reach exceeds its grasp, but it is a strong effort that haunted us for days afterward.

Awards Level: 7.5 out of 10; Entertainment Level: 8 out of 10


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