‘The Lost City of Z’ Review: A Grand, Classical Historical Drama

Directing
Acting
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The Lost City of Z is a lavish epic about the explorer and British army officer Percy Fawcett that had huge ambitions but did not quite live up to them.

In 1905 Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is a major based in Cork, Ireland and longs for distinction and awards from his superiors and peers. His chance comes when the Royal Geographic Society ask Fawcett to survey the Amazon region on the Bolivia/Brazil border. With his colleagues Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley) they discover evidence of a civilization that use to exist in the rainforest and, over the next 20 years, continues to find what Fawcett has dubbed ‘The Lost City of Z’.

The Lost City of Z is a film with a great scale, not just because of a long period of time it is set in but also due to the big adventure. It is an old-fashioned style of exploration film that isn’t really made anymore. Like Werner Herzog’s classic 1972 film Aguirre, the Wrath of God: The Lost City of Z is set in the jungles of South America and has themes of exploring the unknown to the point of obsession -although Fawcett at least has some levels of sanity, while like The Revenant, The Lost City of Z is a survival tale in the wilderness. Scenes, where the indigenous people fire arrows at the explorers, are also similar to the attacks the Native Americans mounted against the fur trappers. The action in the jungle and the trenches are brief but intense because they are seen through Fawcett and his colleague’s perspective: they don’t know what’s on the other side. I would love to see more of this approach for a war film.

The Lost of Z also has the spender of Stanley Kubrick’s costume drama Barry Lyndon: both films have terrific costumes and cinematography. Writer/director James Gray and his cinematographer Darius Khondji followed Kubrick’s approach to use natural lighting – interior scenes are filmed in dark rooms only lit by candles, lamps, and sunlight from the windows, while exterior are wonderfully varied – from the sunlit meadows of Devon, the damp, green atmosphere of the Amazon and the gray and brown desolation of the trenches at the Somme. It’s similar to what the 2014 World War One drama Testament of Youth did, juxtaposing a bright, sunlit look for events before the war and having a drabber look when the war commences.

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Also, like Barry Lyndon classical musical plays an important part of the storytelling. The movie does open with a terrific sequence, where Army officers are hunting a deer while bagpipes play in the background. It’s a striking opening and the music continues in this vein – like a native to the area playing the pan flute, classical music playing in ballrooms and the slightly surreal experience of the explorers entering a small mining colony as an opera is being performed. It is only Christopher Spelman’s second time as a composer and he shows he is a talent to watch out for. However, at times the sound mixing was off: when a character shouted it pierced through my ears even though that would not be the intent. But, I am willing to give the film the benefit, that it could have been a problem with the cinema’s sound system.

Besides from borrowing some of Barry Lyndon filmmaking techniques Fawcett’s character motivations are similar to the title character in the Kubrick film. Early in The Lost City of Z one of Fawcett’s superiors described him as having ‘an unfortunate choice of ancestors’ and he longs to regain his family status and glory. Yet Fawcett’s own personal ambitions end up running parallel to his newly found respect for the indigenous people of South America: he speaks out against their mistreatment by the Brazilian and Bolivian governments and states that they are much more sophisticated than they appear. Although the indigenous people live almost naked in huts they still have legends about the lost city and still have knowledge on how to farm in the rainforest: something the white man has not been able to manage. He is seen as a maverick by his contemporaries because of his views about the indigenous people: as they put “it’s one thing to sympathize with Indians, another to elevate them.”

There is a lot for history enthusiasts and people who are interested in anthropology to enjoy. There is a great attention to detail with the costumes and Northern Ireland made a great substitution for the scenes set in England. Even the language felt authentic for the time – something to be appreciated considering many historical films and TV series modernize speech despite the historical setting.

The Lost City of Z also attached a solid cast – possibly attracted because of Gray’s reputation as a filmmaker. Hunnam is an actor that I have never been that impressed by – he failed to do accents in films like Green Street and Pacific Rim, yet in The Lost City of Z he gave a solid and convincing performance as a man ahead of his time. Sienna Miller was unrecognizable as Fawcett’s wife – the woman who willingly supports his endeavors: raising their children and helping in his research – yet not allowed to go on the adventures herself. Pattinson has been ridiculed for his role in the Twilight series yet he made efforts to be seen as a serious dramatic actor, and for The Lost City of Z dons a beard and a pair of period spectacles: he gave a more understated performance to Hunnam’s who was much more combative.

The Lost City of Z was aiming for awards attention – which it never received – and yet there was so much material that the book it was based upon could have been adapted as a mini-series. James Gray’s talent shines through in making a solid period drama.


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Kieran Freemantle
I am a film critic/writer based in the UK, writing for Entertainment Fuse, Rock n Reel Reviews, UK Film Review and Meniscus Sunrise. I have worked on film shoots. I support West Ham and Bath Rugby. Follow me on Twitter @FreemantleUK.