Synopsis – A true-life drama, centering on British explorer Col. Percival Fawcett, who disappeared while searching for a mysterious city in the Amazon in the 1920s.
My Take – Considering the slew of blockbusters releasing almost every weekend, it’s rare to see an epic like this James Gray film to find itself a place among them. Marked as an Action Adventure on IMDb, this film is one of those stories told with a labor of love & is more concerned about presenting its artistic narrative than being just a riveting historical adventure. Yes! If you’re looking for fast action and guns on the lines of Indiana Jones, you won’t find it here. While there is a great deal of compelling exposé of our titular character and his crew’s exploration of the Amazon, encounters with Indians, wild beasts, and so forth, as well as some tense battle scenes of the WWI Battle of the Somme, most people are likely to be disappointed in the end as this film is more of a philosophical think-piece and character study of a tragic hero, his dream and what it takes to live this dream. Albeit noticeably flawed in many aspects, this film hearkens back to the days where exploration epics were a normalcy in the filmmaking world. Based on author David Grann‘s nonfiction bestseller, the story follows Major Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a military man who during a period of 1900s to the 1920s is trying to regain his family’s good name after his drunken father kind of sent it down the crapper. Unable to earn his due credit as a result, Percy is often moved around the British kingdom and finds himself working for Royal Geographic Society who want him to draw upon his earlier training as a surveyor to go into the Amazon and help settle a border dispute between Brazil and Bolivia. A successful mission could help avoid a war between those two countries, help insure the continued success of his country’s rubber trade in the region, and finally bring him some decorations for his unadorned uniform and help restore honor to his family name. With immense support from his Nina (Sienna Miller), an independent-minded woman who relegates herself to the role of primary caregiver for their growing family, which including their sons, Jack and Brian and daughter Joan, so Percy can entry the dangerous uncharted terrain without being worried about this family for the upcoming two or three years.
With the help of fellow explorer Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and other members of his party, Percy completes his assigned mission – and also finds well-made pieces of ancient pottery. Percy returns home to a hero’s welcome, but he quickly alienates the scientific community which was cheering him on when he makes a speech proclaiming that he was close to finding evidence of a sophisticated Native American civilization that may predate their own. But then, with the support (and company) of a wealthy gentleman named James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), who fancies himself an explorer, Percy, Henry and Arthur head back to South America. A combination of run-ins with the natives, Murray’s lack of intestinal fortitude, the beginning of World War I and other factors complicate and delay Percy realizing his ultimate goal, but he keeps trying and is ultimately joined by his now grown up son, Jack (Tom Holland). There is an epic feel to the film, to the way both worlds are presented in their majesty. Little-known writer/director James Gray (“The Immigrant”, “We Own the Night”, “Little Odessa”) retells history through the perspectives of whoever influenced the great man’s journeys, including the British council, his three children, and his committed wife. The missus criticizes him for leaving home to explore new worlds, sharing no part of it with them. She wants him to think women have it harder than men, considering the pains of childbirth and house care. Yet she barely knows anything about the true unkind nature of South America’s rainforest, a world ruled by snakes, bats, and starvation. While, the British world with its luxuries and civilization with its rigidity and the class divisions, and the new world, full of mysteries, opportunities, and dangers, it’s a world that charms and frightens, with such power and plenty of darkness, with the lure of promises that might or might never come true. The film is a representation of what the establishment is, and how societies change because of different reasons, one can have plans, but it doesn’t mean that they will always be fully realized. Covering a whole life time is a daunting task, but I think the director James Gray did an excellent job of choosing the important pieces of the fascinating story of Col. Fawcett. If you have to travel to Brazil, you soon discover a country of not just beautiful beaches and food, but a land of rich history and mystery. Many explorers went searching in Brazil like Sir Richard Burton and of course Col. Percy Fawcett. Col. Fawcett is clearly a leader with a vision. His men follow him accordingly. Henry Costin provides a devoted companion, but also a morale centre and a reality check, something required on any dangerous mission. His son Jack loves him and wants to follow in his footsteps and carry on the quest. His wife Nina is psychic, and understands at a deep level what motivates him, although she has to bear the burden of raising their sons and daughter. The story of how Percy Fawcett must find the Lost City without any certainty that it actually exists, even when it means he has to probable death and neglect his own family, is thought-provoking, but no more so than many other films of this type. The strengths of the film lie with its unique journey the protagonist takes, and not necessarily with the protagonist or the film itself. What I mean by that is that I think the actual story the film is based on is more interesting than how the film portrays it.
Sometimes biopics that span a great length of time are difficult to effectively portray on the big screen, because the film takes place over the course of roughly 20 years, it becomes increasingly tough to grapple onto something worth enjoying. Every time one of his explorations seems to get interesting, we get interrupted by his abrupt return to civilization and more family drama. Whether or not that’s how the true story of Percy Fawcett went is irrelevant. Sometimes it takes some tweaking to make for an entertaining feature length film. We don’t really empathize that much with Fawcett’s obsessions, mainly because the film doesn’t make the unexplored Amazon seem terribly alluring, nor does it really show what makes him so confident the City is out there somewhere. I am not sure the extent to which the film scrubs Fawcett of his own attitudes toward the tribal peoples that lived in this part of the world and I don’t care. The film does a good enough job or portraying Fawcett in morally ambiguous shades but also refuses to judge him for the man that he was. The film is more about what went from being an impromptu assignment to an intensely personal cause for one man. He does a great job of humanizing Fawcett’s adventures and distilling them to their most important elements, creating an enlightening and entertaining film in the process. Although this film has a lush, visually splendid look, there is nothing self-indulgent or superficial about it. It epitomizes how arduous Fawcett’s objective was and how he never let go of what became his deepest longing, the film earns its running time by portraying the psychology of a man whose dream never leaves him. We aren’t likely to watch a more beautiful or expertly photographed film this year. Director James Gray‘s project looks and feels like a throwback to days of epic filmmaking, and cinematographer Darius Khandji (Se7en) fills the screen with green and gold hues that deliver both a sense of realism and a touch of romanticism. The minor quibble here is with the emphasis on the biographical rather than the more interesting and compelling and adventuresome expeditions to the “new” world. Some plot-holes and ambiguities aside, not is ruinous, the film is easily watchable, with some pronounced draggy spots. While this film does such a great job making Fawcett’s life look fascinating, following him through his time with the army to his time as an explorer, I must admit that the slow burn of the narrative almost put me to sleep. It reminds me of another project Brad Pitt (who also produced the film) was evolved in, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Though the film is not as painfully slow, the combination of the quiet tone, somber mood and its pacing was not something I wanted to sit in a film theater and watch. It’s not that the film is very long; it’s that it feels long, and it feels like something that the film does on purpose. However, along with the believable period costumes and the breathtaking greenery, what keeps you hooked on is the enchanting performances from the cast. Charlie Hunnam gives the best performance of his career so far. Here, he is adequate and measured in his most grown up acting performance, and really made Fawcett a compelling man to follow. We also get star making turns from Sienna Miller, Robert Pattinson and a ruddy cheeked and opulent Angus MacFadyen, all elevating each scene they are in and making the journey worth it for sure. In a smaller role, Tom Holland is also impressive. On the whole, ‘The Lost City of Z’ is a slow-paced yet engaging historical epic that is built on strong performances and its exquisite style.
Directed – James Gray
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 141 minutes