by Philip Price
“The Lost City of Z” is a 20-year epic that essentially chronicles the fine line between ambition and irresponsibility. It's an illustration of how one must gauge the ramifications of their actions in the long run to better determine that present decision. In “The Lost City of Z,” we are told the story of Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) a man who became obsessed with finding what no one around him believed could be true. It wasn't always the driving force in his life, when we meet Fawcett he is simply looking to restore the respect of his name, but as his life evolves and opportunities arise he develops a need or more, the ambition, to discover the unknown that he knows is out there. Even as his wife (a wonderful Sienna Miller) waits at home for him raising what amounts to be their three children. Fawcett is gone for years at a time when on his expeditions and given those twenty years take place between 1905 and 1925 his younger children often forget who he is by the time he returns. The questions Fawcett eventually has to come to terms with are those of if the lost years with his children and wife were worth what was on the other side of the world? It would seem, as the movie tells it, that they were. That there was no letting go of this need to know the unknown and that even if he had done so in favor of remaining with his family for the rest of his days that those final days would have undoubtedly been tinged with regret. It's a difficult position to be in emotionally; knowing you should likely do one thing in favor of the other, but realizing that itch is never going to go way until you scratch it. As a film, this is the angle director James Gray takes in choosing to convey the story of Percy Fawcett. A true story of a man who displays fearlessness from the beginning, a selfishness necessary to leave a certain type of legacy, and a mentality that fully surrenders to the idea that death is the best sauce for life. This may all sound beyond enticing and rather mysterious, but “The Lost City of Z” is a rather straight-forward and old-fashioned adventure movie that delivers its ruminations in subtle enough fashion that an impression is left even if the adventures themselves aren't as grand as one might imagine if they know Fawcett's story before going into the film.
Gray, who has something of an eclectic filmography thus far, typically tends to work in the finer details of relationships; dealing in the dynamics of kin and lovers in ways that evoke a certain truth. From what I remember, I enjoyed “We Own the Night” well enough and thought “Two Lovers” was fine as well if not as great as it became made to be while I was not a fan of his most recent effort in “The Immigrant,” which was also a period piece. If anything, “The Immigrant” displayed the director could work within a different period rather than that of contemporary New York (though it was still set in New York), but because that movie didn't really work on any other level I was cautious about how much to expect out of this latest endeavor. With “The Lost City of Z,” Gray departs from that comfort zone entirely and makes what might arguably be his best film to date. But what is it specifically about this film that automatically elevates it to such a status? For starters it would seem it has to do with the inherently engaging premise and the fact it is indeed based on real life events. In today's world, where we can pull up a map on our smart phone and type in anywhere we want to go waiting a minimum of a few seconds for this device to give us the fastest route to that destination “The Lost City of Z” tells of real, genuine explorers or people we don't tend to think about or consider much anymore. Furthermore, Fawcett is a man who doesn't initially stand out as an individual whose soul quest in life is to do just that. Rather, it is when Fawcett expands his ambition past the self-serving and to goals that might broaden the minds of mankind and tear down their narrow-minded convictions while simultaneously quenching this fire that rages on inside of him that the film also takes on this larger scope and this more engaging element. The idea that there is always "more out there" is also always engaging and when paired with the elements of this having actually occurred as well as Fawcett's mentality as illustrated by a fine if not exceptional performance from Hunnam we get what is a fascinating film based on these factors alone. Add to this elements such as Miller's strong and noble female presence, the lush jungle cinematography from Darius Khondji, and the elegant yet understated score from Christopher Spelman and there should be no qualms with this being Gray's best work to date.
Like I said in the opening line of my review, “The Lost City of Z” is an epic of sorts, but it isn't necessarily the time that it covers or the multiple trips to the Amazonia that make it such (though those certainly don't hurt) as much as it is the minutia of why these men are doing what they're doing in their own minds. It's a difficult line of thinking to try and put into words, but it would seem the easiest way to explain is by example. “The Lost City of Z” covers a vast array of territory and is clearly a large production, but with the state of cinema as it is today audiences will likely take much of this for granted. What still sticks though, are certain lines and certain actions that jolt us out of the monotony of what becomes a pattern with Fawcett (we'll get to the pacing of the film shortly). On his second expedition to Bolivia and/or Brazil (his initial quest is to help determine where the border is between these two countries) he is accompanied and likely funded by James Murray (Angus Mcfadyen), a well-known biologist who is highly regarded for his travels and expeditions in Alaska. Murray ultimately can't keep up with Fawcett and his steadfast crew that includes Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley). Murray becomes weak and unwilling, cocky even to the point that when Fawcett successfully establishes peace and conversation with a tribe of cannibals that live alongside the river they must travel to reach their destination Murray is unwilling to participate in exchange for what could be valuable information. It is at one point, as tensions are rising that Murray slings an insult at their leader that is along the lines of Fawcett being more in love with his supposed "lost city" than that of his own family. Fawcett grabs Murray by the collar and proclaims, "I could be home with them and yet I am here with you to attempt great things." It is a quick exchange, but the tension somewhat deflates after Fawcett makes his position clear leaving Murray to do what he will regardless of what the others think. It is in this line of dialogue though that the implications of what grand accomplishments Fawcett believes are just out of his grasp. What accomplishments he believes are more valuable than that time he is losing with his family. That what is motivating Fawcett is essentially what might be left of him after he is gone hits hard. Of course, all of this will depend on what an individual believes truly makes a man: rank and achievements or the loved ones you're willing to die for? Gray doesn't give us his opinion on the subject either, but instead leaves it up to us to decide if Fawcett's fate was worth all he sacrificed.
As I was leaving the theater there were two older men walking in front of me and one naturally turned to the other to ask what he thought of the movie. "It was like having sex without the orgasm," the other man responded. If you can get past the frankness of the second guy he certainly has a point. At two hours and 20 minutes “The Lost City of Z” indeed lives up to the aforementioned description of being an "epic," but it also suffers due to many of those same qualifiers. The sequences that document Fawcett's expeditions are thrilling-especially when we initially find out the sorts of obstacles he and his men will be facing-and there is a constant sense of unease as neither we nor the characters are sure what might happen next, but the film so often retreats from the jungles of Bolivia back to early twentieth century England that we never become as ingrained in the cultures that might take our protagonist closer to what he hopes to find as it seems we should. We never fully understand what the concept of Z is in the mind of Fawcett other than that it establishes the existence of an ancient civilization that pre-dates our own. We're told it was supposedly made of gold, but Fawcett never finds anything to suggest any reason we should believe this claim by a native. We don't know if what Fawcett is actually searching for is something that is to be found in the incarnation he might have dreamt up and “The Lost City of Z” certainly isn't going to show you what that incarnation might have been. No, “The Lost City of Z,” much like Fawcett's actual life if we're to believe what history suggests, never quenches the blaze of revealing the glories the titular city might have held and there is no doubt audiences will expect it to do exactly that and be disappointed when it doesn't. The guy who didn't get his orgasm certainly was. Still, this wasn't as much a detriment to the film overall as was the measured and often indulgent pacing of the project. Might this have worked better as an HBO miniseries of some sort? Possibly, but while it's understandable this amount of time was necessary to tell this story it doesn't always feel as if Gray is using that time as effectively as he could have. That said, “The Lost City of Z” is in itself an effective piece of filmmaking that we don't see much of anymore and while it is rather notable it isn't something one might label as extraordinary. We'll never know if the fate Fawcett met was the destiny he imagined, but he will now certainly be known as a man whose reach exceeded his grasp-which might be more rewarding than the answers he received did he ever find his "lost city".