Film Review: The Lost City of Z [2017]

James Gray’s adaptation of David Grann’s nonfiction book (itself an adaptation of true events) hearkens back to classical Hollywood adventure cinema with competent cinematography from the skilled Darius Khondji, full of nice colors, good lighting and frames, and a narrative that is predictably familiar and light on guts. Gray’s film—as a cinematic work—is far too calculated and safe, never venturing into challenging, let alone uncharted, territory; disappointing for a film about early 20th-century British explorer Percy Fawcett’s obsessive hunt for the mythical city of Z in the Amazon jungle.

Fawcett is the center of this story, an overlooked and undecorated soldier whose family name is tainted by a history we learn little about. Yet he has the chance to redeem the family name, and obtain much-desired recognition and accolades by accepting an exploration assignment to map the border of Bolivia and Brazil. In doing so, he also uncovers artifacts he believes come from the lost city of El Dorado, which he calls “Z.” With that, his obsession is off and running, along with a romanticized notion of colonial exploration and male achievement.

Along the way, we get some brief-to-the-point-of-obligatory nods to colonialism, racism, and sexism in early 20th-century Britain that are never given the proper space they deserve, and are instead always subservient to the movie’s adoration of Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam). And yet, Fawcett himself is not a particularly multi-faceted, dynamic character. Instead the script and Hunnam’s performance place him in a comfortably narrow range that is easy to follow and understand. It’s a rather soft-boiled addition to a heritage of cinematic characters that include mystifying and complex figures like Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence, and Klaus Kinski’s Don Lope de Aguirre and Brian Sweeny Fitzgerald. Hunnam’s strangely sage and hushed performance has all the gestures, facial expressions, and intonations of an actor insisting the character has real Vision. Consequently, both actor and character are predictably desperate to be liked (by us viewers most of all), creating a stale portrait of restless yearning for their version of the Unknown (which happens to be another culture’s known, but more on that in a moment). Hunnam plays Fawcett like he just watched Morgan Freeman’s Nelson Mandella performance from Invictus on repeat, a perfect template of the prophetic explorer, a testament to England’s enlightened heritage (White Savior anyone? But minus the saving). And yet, for a film “based on the best-selling true story” (whatever that might mean) it never comes close to the vividly dynamic, captivating characters in documentaries like Meru or Herzog’s short doc The Dark Glow of the Mountains. Or even the luminous, contemplative awe of PBS’s Salt, about photographer Murray Fredericks: a short doc that does in 30 minutes what Hunnam and Gray can’t manage in nearly 2.5 hours.

The length is further disgruntling because individual scenes tend to drag, while the whole narrative feels too rushed and cramped. At no point did the movie breathe and move at its own natural pace, instead the hovering presence of studio and producers, clock and list of to-do boxes in hand, is always there, just off screen, declaring: “time’s up! Check! Moving on!” Certainly, a strange feeling when several scenes are too long for what they give. The length brings a hollow weightiness to the whole affair, every scene pregnant with imposed Meaning and Significance mainlined into our eyes and ears through trundling dialog deliveries and lingering slow-motion camerawork of such heavy-handed force that I can’t help but think James Gray, or perhaps the studio, considers the audience not too bright.

The pace, structure and sheer number of allegedly significant places and scenes leaves the book ever-present, lurking in the background, dictating what the film should be and where it should go—at least in terms of plot. World War I? Sure, it’s fine. Again, it’s a nicely staged, presented and executed scene. But also totally irrelevant. Cut the damn thing. I doubt we’d lose anything in the story, but we’d gain plenty in time and focus. This is a common problem with adaptations trying to cover more of the book than is necessary or feasible (think the first two Harry Potter films). Thus, what we get is a film spread too thin, while going on too long.

The only relief from this pace and tone come from the laudable supporting cast. Robert Pattinson‘s Henry Costin and Angus Macfadyen‘s James Murray breathe a bit of dynamic life into their roles and their scenes. Macfadyen, while a conventional stock antagonist and convenient deflection away from more important issues (more on that, too), still manages to offer some tonal shifts that alleviate the weighty seriousness saturating Hunnam’s Fawcett. Pattinson is also a measured and competent presence, never contending for more space than is necessary (the film wouldn’t give it to him anyway, so this is a smart move on Pattinson’s part). Unfortunately, both characters are too overtly placed in order to elevate Fawcett. In the end both are a bit unfairly torn down. This is also true of Nina Fawcett (Selina Miller), whose confidence draws out some of Percy’s egotistical flaws, yet the film eventually quashes this and comfortably places her in the proper subordinate position. She doesn’t begin as the weepy housewife stereotype, but that does seem to be where she ends.  Alas, the supporting cast is solid, but compromised.

This adoration of Percy Fawcett, along with the film’s slavish need to hit all the right bases problematizes and impedes the movie’s approach to gender politics and colonialism. If we’re not going to spend much time with disparity between the sexes, then giving the subject mere cursory attention—a line here, an argument scene there—is just hollow dramatics masquerading as depth and dimension. It’s a calculated nod to 21st-century sensibilities, with the filmmakers fishing for complement: “see? We’re addressing The Issues.” But this is them tackling the issues the way many of my relatives over fifty do: often poorly and always already outdated, denying both past and present a fair shake. Similarly, racism and colonialism never become fully-developed aspects of the film; they’re minor plot points hoping for unearned dimension. The film shallowly, but no less desperately, claims our protagonist is pretty enlightened about Natives, just as we, the filmmakers, are very enlightened. See? Here are some basically mute exoticized Natives from the past; thank goodness Fawcett’s very enlightened brain discovered that they’re not savages (I’m very convinced, and Natives everywhere are thanking you).

To seriously tackle the colonial foundation and engine of British exploration, rather than deploying the James Murray character as cheap deflection and evasion, would call the entire film and narrative into question. Frankly, taking Fawcett’s role in colonial enterprise head on would have made a far more interesting movie, and one more relevant to our global, cultural moment. After all, the British colonial enterprise is what brought us to our present situation, where the Amazon is (still) being completely plundered and extinguished, now home to giant, vacant World Cup stadiums and vast industrial plantations, that turn healthy, diverse ecosystems into sterile monocultures. Lost cities indeed. The Amazon and its inhabitants have lost plenty to U.S. and British interests. But to highlight such things (as Roland Joffé’s The Mission does) would undercut why the film wants us to care about Fawcett’s story at all, thus exposing some of the crasser motives behind the film existing for our consumption.

Interrogating gender and colonialism properly would but foreground how Tennyson’s “Ulysses” (an obvious inspiration) is a beautifully crafted piece of white dude-bro shit, where women, domestic life, and familial responsibilities hinder men from realizing their potential and dreams through manly adventure and warfare (against nature and humans equally). Whatever complexity either of these topics are offered early on is easily sidestepped and overcome later in the film. Our wife acquiesces, our justifiably disgruntled children agree with us, World War I was, er, noble?, the natives vanish into exotic faceless obscurity, so our protagonist can launch into mystical oblivion. Platitudes abound, and the entire thing becomes an exercise in nostalgia for a simpler time when white men of Western Imperialism were free to go where they like when they liked—because that was what gave life meaning.

There’s certainly a story here worth exploring, but James Gray either couldn’t or wouldn’t bring it. The Lost City of Z sits in the company of high-profile films like In the Heart of the Sea and The Revenant as another droll adaptation that successfully turns a fascinating, inherently cinematic piece of history into a laboriously uninteresting tale. Hardly the stuff of adventure. If this is what the spirit of exploration looks like I’m not sure how the British ever made it off their own island. But now I better understand why the Amazon is ruined.