The Lost City of Z Review: A Far Reach in Need of a Firmer Grasp
A brave and daring explorer. A perilous journey. A destination of mythic proportions. These are the necessary and essential ingredients for any adventure film featuring an expedition into the wilderness. And humanity, being the curious and adventurous bunch we are, has provided Hollywood with the raw materials to produce many a fun and immersive film in this vein, some of which are even true. Well, true-ish. The Lost City of Z, following in such well-trodden filmmaking footsteps, shapes up as an ambitious, if somewhat wanting contender in that category.
Adapted from the best-selling non-fiction book of the same name and directed by James Gray, The Lost City of Z heavily dramatizes the true adventures of British explorer, soldier, and archeologist Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam). In real life, Fawcett was a Colonel in the British Army and an explorer who fit the romanticized mold of turn-of-the-century explorers. He traveled the world, made remarkable discoveries, and encountered several rare and previously undiscovered animals, which he then promptly shot.
By the standards of his day, Fawcett would have been the most interesting person at most dinner parties and soirees, regaling the British upper crust over cigars and brandy with tales of his recent expeditions, primarily to South America. Then when the Great War came, he was among the first to volunteer. He somehow managed to survive four years in uniform, received several mentions in dispatches for his gallantry, and was eventually awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Despite that, he is remembered primarily for his pursuit of a lost city in the amazon jungle.
The film quickly establishes Fawcett as an ambitious and fearless man, willing to take great risks to retrieve whatever prize he seeks. In an opening sequence that neatly characterizes the man, we are witness to his participation in a high-stakes elk hunt on horseback, alongside his fellow British Army officers. Much prestige is on the line in this hunt, and as Fawcett is a man determined to regain lost respect for his family name, he’s not about to settle for anything less than the win. “There’s no path that way!” yells out a fellow officer at Fawcett, as he rides away from the rest of the pack. Well, the absence of a path is no deterrence for this story’s soon-to-be intrepid explorer, and off he charges into the woods, scoring the precious kill.
This boldness of character in Fawcett soon catches the attention of the National Geographic Society, who finds the young soldier to be an ideal candidate for a dangerous mapping job in the untamed wild of the South American jungle. While an utterly devoted husband and father to his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and his newborn son Jack (portrayed in the latter half of the film by Tom Holland), the prestigious opportunity being offered to him is one he simply cannot pass up. Steaming westward across the Atlantic, Fawcett is joined by his assistant Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), and the adventure soon begins. Their objective is to establish an official border between the countries of Bolivia and Brazil, but shortly after arriving in South America, Fawcett’s attention becomes obsessively focused on reports of an ancient lost city, whose existence could shake the foundations of accepted history in the British Empire, and moreover, the world.
Hunnam gives a solid if somewhat conventional portrayal of the dogged and determined explorer. He plays deftly an ambitious and forthright man unwilling to let go of his dream, but the character feels much the same from his introduction through to the film’s conclusion. Hunnam being the talented actor he is, I found myself wanting from him a more dimensional peek into such a complicated mind.
It’s the characters around Hunnam’s Fawcett that often seem to be more immersed in both the world and the action of the story’s events, and are consequently somewhat more engaging. Miller stands out in this regard and gives a commendable and nicely faceted performance in a role that could’ve easily felt one-note. Angus MacFayden, perhaps best known for playing Scottish hero Robert The Bruce in 1995’s Braveheart, here again gives another complex and conflicted performance as James Murray, a fellow explorer of questionable convictions.
Gray’s direction is clean and focused, and while his adaptation of the book hits all the necessary points to keep the audience generally informed, it’s clear he’s dealing with a vast amount of material that had to be distilled into a single 140 minute film. As is common with film adaptations, pivotal developments occasionally seem to appear almost out of nowhere, and great swaths of the story’s timeline and events are crammed into what feel like sporadic interjections, indicative of a much larger and more intricate “picture” being painted on to what is simply too small a canvas.
Quick, stark shifts in location from the depths of the Amazon jungle to the halls of London (and back again) noticeably hamper the viewer’s ability to gain a rich and immersive experience in either place, a crucial aspect to adventure-y period pieces of this kind. An HBO-style miniseries, or perhaps the more ballsy commitment to a full-throated 3-hour epic might have been more effective in telling what is clearly a sprawling and enigmatic story.
The Lost City of Z Review Conclusion
The film attempts to adapt a book that had the benefit of hindsight, which allowed it to answer questions that it posed thanks to decades of searching. The film attempts to boil down the larger themes of the books into something a little more palatable for a film audience, with mixed results.
Ambitious and grand in scope, The Lost City of Z is overall an enjoyable film and an admirable attempt at classic adventure filmmaking fare. Bold questions of reason and faith, conviction and cost, entice the viewer’s imagination, yet this hurried film adaptation doesn’t quite succeed at creating the depth and grandeur this kind of story seeks to grasp.
The Lost City of Z is rated PG-13 with a running time of 140 minutes.