New York Film Festival Review: The Lost City of Z

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Writer-director James Gray turns the story of British explorer Percy Fawcett into a stirring, old-school Hollywood epic.

It’s often said that the journey is just as important, if not more so, than the destination. Such is the undying message of Gray’s (The ImmigrantTwo Lovers) latest film The Lost City of Z, which follows real-life explorer Percy Fawcett’s (Charlie Hunnam) expeditions to find a hidden civilization in the Amazon during the early parts of the 20th century.

Adapted from David Grann’s best-selling book of the same name, the story tracks Fawcett’s perilous journeys through previously uncharted regions of the Amazon jungle. The film is much more concerned with the glory of his perseverance, and the impact of his travels on his family, than it is on finding the illusive city of “Zedd.” As a result, Gray has created a film that feels like a lush throwback to the Golden Age of Hollywood. The narrative unspools an epic portrait of Fawcett’s life that’s both a a fascinating character study, and a general testament to the strength of the human spirit.

One of the first things that becomes apparent about Lost City of Z is how visually arresting it is. Gray shot this movie with 35mm film, as opposed to digital cameras, and the choice paid off marvelously. The film has a crisp glow about it, that works well to highlight the dream-like aspirations of Fawcett and his crew. On top of this, cinematographer Darius Khondji (AmourMidnight in Paris) ensures that every scene—both in the Amazon and back home in Britain—is gorgeously shot, making great use of natural lighting and shadows.

Still, Lost City of Z is much more than just style. Other films with a similar narrative would either paint Fawcett as a noble hero, or take the route that he’s an unhinged obsessive who doesn’t care about his family. Gray’s story finds a unique middle ground between the two, showing how this man will stop at nothing to achieve his goals, but still deeply cares for his wife and children.

Speaking of the former, one of the most interesting aspects of Lost City of Z is its depiction of Fawcett’s wife Nina (Sienna Miller). What would normally be a thankless waiting-by-the-sidelines role is here transformed into something much more progressive. Nina is trapped within the misogynistic confines of her time period, but she still finds a way to go above and beyond the call of a dutiful housewife, and becomes more of a partner to her husband on his quest. A scene in which the two argue after she asks to accompany him on his next trip to the jungle is a welcome aversion from typical martial spats.

Ensuring that Nina’s character is fully well-rounded is Miller, whose magnetic performance expertly shifts between quiet grace and fiery determination. The rest of the cast is excellent as well, with Hunnam delivering both leading-man charisma and subtler nuances during Fawcett’s weaker moments. Robert Pattinson, as Fawcett’s right-hand man Henry Costin, is immediately compelling upon his introduction and proves to be a wonderful companion along the journey. Tom Holland, who plays Fawcett’s son Jack during his later years, is outstanding in a smaller, but still important role.

Grey’s film covers many years of Fawcett’s life has he takes multiple trips back to the Amazon in search of Zedd. Because of this, the film runs at 140 minutes, and often drags in places where the characters are working towards their next big discovery. Still, this is a story about the beauty of dedication. Fawcett devotes his life to a cause he fully believes in, and his unflinching enthusiasm is easy to get behind. In a way, Grey proves himself to be much like Fawcett in his filmmaking. The Lost City of Z is a type of movie that, in terms of both filming style and plot, doesn’t get made too often anymore. Grey’s dedication to the art form that he loves seeps through every part of the film, making this story a truly great adventure. Grade: A-

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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