Starring: Charlie Hunman, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller
Director: James Gray
Running Time: 141 mins
Synopsis: In the early 1900s British explorer Percy Fawcett (Hunman) journeys to the never before explored Amazon. There he encounters indigenous tribes, crippling bouts of disease and treacherous routes through the forest. He also discovers evidence of a lost civilisation. Over a number of years we witness this search become an obsession that will forever change his and his family’s life. Based on a true story.
The Lost City of Z is a long film. A length that you feel with every lucid dreamlike scene and leisurely paced treks through the jungle. This is by no means a criticism, unlike some films that pride long running times for the sake of scale rather than what the story requires, Z needs its 2 and a half hour running time to fully grasp the nature of its themes. It certainly helps when it’s steered by the supremely reliable and strong hands of director James Gray (We Own the Night).
A true story concerning Percy Fawcett, a loyal officer in the British Army who faces limits on career progression due to a deliberately vague past family incident concerning his father. Chance for redemption and a new standing in the military community is offered when the Royal Geographical Society ask him to journey to the unknown Amazon for a mapping expedition. Aware this will cause tensions within his newly blossoming family, and especially wife Nina played by Sienna Miller, he realises that he has no other choice if he is to provide for his family. Although more importantly a chance to soothe his wounded male ego.
This opening visit to the wild unpredictable jungle is where the ponderous nature of the film feels most evident. Largely free of incident, barring a brief spat with the local tribesman and threats from disease, it is woozily slow. As the film evolves and Percy returns to England a hero, but also spouting what is widely regarded as nonsense about a lost city, this opening portion is now key to building a vibe that slowly reveals itself to be something transporting and haunting. The quietness of the opening journey is part of the reason Percy becomes driven to return to this unknown part of the world. It is there amidst the silence and mystery that he feels most comfortable, it is the Amazon where he can become a hero to his country, his family and above all else himself.
Charlie Hunman has never been a particularly emotive performer, never truly showcasing why so many casting directors have volunteered him for such big projects. Lost City of Z finally gives him the opportunity to bring those talents to the fore, but with some cravats. Rigid to begin with, and remaining aloof throughout Hunman doesn’t always portray the obsession and complexities of his situation to make him emotionally connective to the audience. It is after he returns from his first visit in which he attempts to persuade the scientific community of his findings that a fire is finally glimpsed within. Standing upon a stage and declaring that he HAS to go back, whilst firing off a series of withering put-downs to the nerdy detractors, Hunman elicits a charisma that felt missing before.
Originally a role earmarked for Brad Pitt then after he dropped out Benedict Cumberbatch, it makes you wonder whether they would have been more successful in selling the conflicted emotions Percy faces. It is not that Hunman does a bad job per se, he is perfectly decent with one scene after a formidable battle sequence at the Somme being particularly devastating, but he is the weaker link in a film with grand ambitions. It also doesn’t help that charges of filmic licence have been levied at the piece, as numerous articles state that the real Percy Fawcett was a far more unlikable character prone to treating the indigenous tribes with disdain rather than the sensitivity he does here. At the end of the day film is always subjective and Gray has elected to discuss greater themes here rather than offer a truth of which will only undermine all those aspirations.
The rest of the cast compensate with some soulful performances. Sienna Miller is a little underwritten, but conveys the conflict between supporting her husband and her own lofty misguided ambitions to be a part of his expeditions (this is the early 1900s after all so female empowerment is hard to come by) effectively. Gray touches on her frustrations but never fully delves into them, but he at least graces her with the breathlessly moving and hauntingly beautiful final shot.
Tom Holland continues his strong work with a third act central role as Percy’s older son. Resentful of his father’s consistent absence, he slowly begins to see signs of how important these expeditions are to Percy and is key to helping him return after a war injury damages his sight. Desperate to be seen with as much detail and affection as his dad has for the unforgiving rain-forest, Holland becomes the tragic casualty of Percy’s selfish hunger for something greater than himself.
By far the strongest performance, and I’m shocked to be saying this, is Robert Pattinson as Percy’s fellow explorer Henry Costin. Masked behind a truly magnificent beard, he gives a quiet internal performance, filled with loyalty to Percy and a dry wit that eases the somewhat heavy themes involved.
Structured around the three trips to the Amazon James Gray fosters a mood without the need to resort to crowd pleasing moments of adventure thrills, although encounters with violent locals and battles against the elements are suitably exciting. There is a measured control here, with scenes slowly washing over you to truly absorb and captivate. The fact that almost all was filmed on location gives a sense of naturalism that no amount of greenscreen could deliver. Sound is also a key proponent here, with score kept to a minimum in favour of the living breathing sounds of the forest, to truly make you feel a part of the journey.
And this journey is certainly long, and will most definitely not appeal to everyone, but give yourself over to it and it becomes nothing short of transformative. In fact now that I know of the vibe I’m driven to watch it again to see whether the opening segments of the film feel less sluggish. But all I know is that the final product seeped into my conscious for days after, its questions over legacy, parenthood, obsession, discovery and the male ego are vital and delivered with sensitivity. It is a long slow journey that enriches the soul.
Verdict: A languid pace and a solid if unspectacular central performance do not lessen the impact of an absorbing journey into the wilderness of man. It is profound but not pretentious, slow but not boring and a tribute to the yearn of discovery in all of humanity.