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The Lost City of Z

THE LOST CITY OF Z

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: James Gray

Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Edward Ashley, Tom Holland, Angus Macfadyen, Ian McDiarmid, Clive Francis

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for violence, disturbing images, brief strong language and some nudity)

Running Time: 2:21

Release Date: 4/14/17 (limited); 4/21/17 (wide)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | April 20, 2017

Based on David Grann's non-fiction book of the same name, The Lost City of Z is a study of passion that becomes obsession—of a quest for personal and professional fulfillment that borders on overcompensation. It's not only the main character who suffers from these heightened qualities. There's another character whose motives in the third act mirror the protagonist's, and those motives have been created by the vacuum left through the actions of the central character. It is ultimately a tragic tale, obviously.

Writer/director James Gray's film may wander in terms of its ideas, touching upon some fascinating ones before leaving them behind, but its focus is squarely set on the drive of Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam, giving a, thus far, career-best performance in a difficult, evolving role), who begins the story as an undecorated officer in the British Army at the beginning of the 20th century. He's a man of unsatisfied ambition who has been relegated to training soldiers in Cork, Ireland, while his peers receive commendations and the higher-ups routinely ignore him.

All of this is on account of his father, a man who held great promise but squandered it through alcohol. The family name has been tarnished in British—and especially military—society, and Percy has been left to take the brunt of the consequences.

The entirety of the film could be condensed as a study of fathers and sons—and especially the effect that absentee fathers have on abandoned sons who, contradictorily, want nothing and everything to do with those fathers. Percy has followed in his father's footsteps, despite wanting to be nothing like his disgraced old man. One of Percy's own sons goes through the same process throughout the course of the decades-spanning story. Percy's tragedy is twofold, then: In an effort to distance himself from his father, he becomes the same sort of father to his own sons, and one son, who wants nothing and everything to do with his own old man, bears the consequences of his father's failure as a father.

The film is filled with such insightful contradictions. When it comes to Percy's actions, the primary one is between the potential repercussions of his adventures in terms of history and his shortsightedness in terms of his personal life. After years of professional stonewalling, an opportunity comes to him via the Royal Geographical Society. The border between Brazil and Bolivia is undetermined because of the jungle, and the Society is to serve as a third party in determining that border. Leaving behind his pregnant wife Nina (Sienna Miller, wisely avoiding a stereotypical portrayal of a scorned spouse) and his young son, Percy takes the chance to lead the expedition, believing that it will help his reputation.

The historical implications come when, near the end of an expedition to find the source of the Rio Verde, Percy discovers what he believes to be archeological findings of an ancient civilization in the region. His belief in such a civilization flies in the face of established ideas of Western superiority, and many scoff at his beliefs, calling Percy's supposed "lost city," which the accidental explorer dubs "Z" (pronounced "Zed," for us non-Brits), as being akin to the legends of El Dorado. Percy, already angry at an establishment that has held him back for so long, makes it his life's goal to prove those established notions wrong.

Every time he sets out, he leaves behind a growing family, whose members only partially understand his motives. He finds understanding in his regular company of explorers, who include Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley).

Even as the filmmaker contextualizes the significance of these ventures, Gray doesn't attempt to glorify Percy. There is, though, a thorough comprehension of the character's drive, as well as, to a smaller extent, a level of sympathy for underlying factors that have contributed to it.

The juxtaposition of Percy and his eldest son Jack (played as a young man by Tom Holland), who spends his childhood not knowing his father and his teenage years outright resenting him, is an intentional attempt to simultaneously condemn and empathize with the protagonist. The former comes in the way Percy's abandonment of his family has created a similar, ultimately deadly personality within his son, and the latter is on account of how this relationship of sons with their fathers is cyclical—almost unavoidable. These fathers have defined their sons through absence, and the sons, in trying to deny their fathers, slowly but surely become them.

Gray shot the film's expedition sequences on location in Colombia, with a keen eye for the natural beauty and harshness of the environment (The lush cinematography is provided by Darius Khondji). The river and its surrounding jungle are first a place of unseen threats (illness and indigenous tribes that hide in the tree line, waiting for invaders) and general uncertainty. As Percy's travels continue over the years, Gray (with the help of Khondji and editors John Axelrad and Lee Haugen) subtly makes it a safer, more comforting place by way of familiar sights (If something is no longer unknown, why should we fear it?) and smoother rhythm. There are also the misadventures of James Murray (Angus Macfayden), who survived Shackleton's expedition in Antarctica but becomes a bumbling fool in the jungle, to serve as an amateur foil to Percy's experience and shifting perspective of the place.

The story is a tragedy in the traditional sense, in which a character's central quality is also his destructive flaw, but the final tone of The Lost City of Z is not one of mourning. It's of regret for a man who could have been a decent father, could have achieved more as an explorer, but couldn't temper the passion that, in the end, led him to fail as both.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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