(The Lost City of Z, 2017)
A hypnotic, poetic, and gorgeous film.
By Tomas van den Heuvel
The world-famous adventurer Col. Percy Fawcett, British First World War veteran, and revered explorer of the Amazon, disappeared together with his son Jack in the Brazilian jungle in 1925. The father and son had set out to find the remnants of a lost, advanced civilisation, deep in the heart of the Amazonian rainforest: a hidden city which Fawcett simply called “Z”.
In the hands of the wrong director, The Lost City of Z could easily have led down the path of a hollow adventure flick – indeed, the trailer did not look promising. But there is no need to worry: this film is a visual treat, rightly described elsewhere as ‘classic,’ yet ‘wholly its own thing’.
Viewers who have read David Grann’s book with the same title – which inspired the film – will perhaps be surprised. This visual epic shows no trace of Grann’s light and racy style, but instead takes its time to explore Fawcett’s obsession with the lost city in all its complexity. The characters are given a lot of space to develop: though they start out as somewhat clichéd Victorian gentlemen with a stiff upper lip, Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) and his fellows show their true face in the jungle. Some turn out to be stern and foolhardy, others cowardly and treacherous.
It is true that the story is, in some parts, stronger on visual imagery than on text. Director James Gray brings the late nineteenth century to life in mellow, soft colours and carefully composed imagery. However, the dialogue is sometimes a bit too heavy on exposition; and despite good performances, the characters’ eloquent and formal speech is not in all cases wholly convincing. On top of that, it would perhaps have been good to give the native populations Fawcett encounters on his travels more agency and personality. All the attention to nineteenth-century bigotry does not excuse the fact that this is still very much a white man’s story.
But these flaws are no more than minor nuisances in such a unique and profound film. The Lost City of Z handles its history with maturity and vision. The characters stand with both feet firmly in their own century, and are not given anachronistic modern ideologies, as is fashionable nowadays in historical cinema. Fawcett and his wife may talk of the rights of woman, but he still expects her to obey him. Jack (Tom Holland) may want to ‘save the Indian’, but the ‘Indian’ is a mere piece of natural beauty to him, rather than a person. Thus, the characters are identifiable, but still distant from the modern viewer – as they should be in a good historical film.
It is true that some liberties are taken with the historical record. However, the film stays relatively true to the facts, and where it does not, it is for a good reason. Jack’s best friend, Raleigh Rimmel, was also part of the final, fatal expedition. In this film, he is left out, which gives us a better chance to explore the relation between father and son Fawcett, and the different ways in which they respond to the spell of the lost city. Gray is not tempted by melodramatic action, and has his eyes on the prize: even scenes set in the First World War trenches are used to deepen our understanding of Fawcett’s vision of the lost city.
Throughout, we are caught up in a careful balancing act between distance and closeness. Thorough storytelling, long shots, mellow colours, and tasteful music transport viewers into a dream from which they may not want to wake up. By and by, reality mixes with fiction: the audience has no choice but to join the characters in their otherworldly jungle fever. This is a hypnotic, poetic, and gorgeous film. It does justice to the life and story of legendary explorer Percy Fawcett; and it does a great deal more.