The Lost City of Z
(SPOILERS) It’s probably no coincidence that the two films I’ve enjoyed most in the last couple of months have adopted an expressly stately pace, slipping effortlessly into the style and narrative form of features of yesteryear. That might be interpreted as a symptom of getting older and failing to appreciate a frenzied assault on the senses the way I once might have, but I suspect it rather derives from surprise and appreciation that this kind of picture still has a place (if not necessarily a wide audience), and that, when it suits the material, the results can still be impressive. The Lost City of Z, like Blade Runner 2049, has variously been described as long-winded and boring, but contrastingly, I found it an immersive, rewarding experience, one that wrestles valiantly with the problems inherent in adapting a decades-spanning, unresolved historical tale.
Indeed, I may have done James Gray something of a disservice by tending to avoid his pictures in the past. I recall being underwhelmed by We Own the Night, assuming he belonged to the Gavin O’Connor brand of serviceable but undemanding character-based crime genre directors. Gray admits, however, that Z is something of a departure for him, and he was unsure why Brad Pitt’s Plan B approached him with the project (Bradley did better than me, since I began reading David Grann’s account of Captain Percy Fawcett’s Amazon expeditions but failed to finished it). While Gray may not bring the same identification with, and eye for, the environment that, say, Werner Herzog or John Boorman have previously, this may be in part a function of the need to retreat from the jungles periodically and stick to the broad outline of the story itself.
As always with the Hollywood movie, though, one has to navigate the ins and outs of fidelity to the facts, and as always (or usually) the ultimate test resides with “Is it a good movie regardless?” This has been true for past explorer biopics (1492: Conquest of Paradise, for example; it’s a long time since I saw Mountains on the Moon). To read John Hemming’s take on the historical figure, you’d think Fawcett had massacred his entire family (he evidently has a bee in his bonnet over what he perceives to be Grann’s numerous and flagrant fabrications). Was Fawcett in fact an ill-prepared idiot, and an ill-prepared racist idiot at that, who got what was coming to him? Hemming certainly thinks so and has been backed up in the “blundering and racist flake” stakes by others who have been there (the rainforest), so “know” (it’s with a case like this that the problem with going to a Hollywood “fact vs fiction” site presents itself; they aren’t really researching, merely quoting opinion pieces such as Hemming’s. As am I, of course, but I’m not holding myself out as a bastion of accuracy).
While I’m not sure Gray’s (commendable) willingness to engage his critics quite gets to the nub of this issue (I suspect the attacks on Fawcett have more to do with professional elitism than class, although those areas may intertwine), one real tester of adverse claims is if alterations to the record leaving one feeling one has being taken out of the movie. It’s a cliché to use “product of the time” to defend unenlightened views in an individual one wishes to esteem in some way, but in this case, it could be argued that it serves the plot motor to transpose Fawcett’s conceptual problems with what he saw as primitive savages existing upon the remains of an advanced civilisation onto his peers at the Royal Geographical Society.
It’s when Gray conflates this with bursts of not only progressive views on race and culture but also the environment and gender equality that one feels the writer-director may be laying it on a bit thick (although, to be fair, the portrait of Nina Fawcett appears to have been at least partially accurate, and Gray does much better in showing Percy’s limited flexibility around this subject than elsewhere).
Gray expressly wanted to get across “an evolved sense of politics”, but I think he underestimates the medium if he feels he needs to achieve that by making his characters lily-white advocates of his own views. Nevertheless, the scenes where Fawcett wittily presents his views to get the Society onside, or stands up for his beliefs (and friends) when the entirely trashed arctic explorer James Murray (Angus Macfadyne, great), who has proved a wretched impediment to their expedition and been rid of, turns up demanding apologies and reparations, are rightly rousing.
Indeed, many haven’t been at all sold on Charlie Hunnam’s performance (Pitt, then Benedict Cumberbatch were lined up to play Fawcett at various points), and I can entirely relate if you’re talking Pacific Rim, say, but he really meets the challenge of portraying the unflappable, dedicated explorer. Certainly, though, if you don’t buy into him, it’s unlikely the picture as a whole will yield approval. Whenever Gray is in the jungle, The Lost City of Z is fascinating, but there just isn’t enough of it, and the intrusion of World War I in particular breaks the flow.
There are many fascinating aspects of Fawcett’s life closer to home, but Gray appears cautious about how much he can deliver. We have a rather clumsy scene in the trenches at the Somme (while Fawcett commanded heavily artillery at Flanders, he didn’t go over the top at the Somme, or get blinded by mustard gas) when an occultist – complete with Ouija board – reads to him, but it’s insufficient to relay how much a flavour of the time such interests where, or that Fawcett was a Helena Blavatsky enthusiast (“charlatan psychic” as Hemming calls her, which as bluntly dismissive a summation as you get) – his brother Edward assisted her in preparing The Secret Doctrine – and shared his arcane passions with Arthur Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard.
He also advocated Z as an outpost of Atlantis and believed his son Jack was the reincarnation of an advanced spirit (one theory has it that Fawcett never intended to return home, but instead to set up a commune in the Amazon dedicated to worshipping Jack). While it’s understandable that Gray didn’t want his hero to appear a complete fantasist, he arguably forwent the more fascinating depiction of the character. For Gray, it’s enough that Fawcett had a dream, one that has (in part) been vindicated.
If Hunnam rises to the occasion, so does Robert Pattison, sporting a mighty beard as Henry Costin, right hand explorer to Fawcett, and continues his flair for strong character work that began with Cronenberg collaborations. Sienna Miller is strong as Nina Fawcett, swallowed into her own jungle of the mind at the end, while Tom Holland gets rather short shrift as son Jack, required to go from young rebel to young apprentice without anything much to tell you the hows and whys.
On the debit side, you’re also consistently aware that this is epic storytelling on a budget, from Fawcett hacking through undergrowth that doesn’t need hacking to coming across the grand opera house of Franco Nero’s baron (it’s like something out of Apocalypse Now, but occurs much too early to have any kind of bewilderingly, hallucinogenic quality). This feeling of the curtailed means that the adverse elements – the disease, the desperation, the starvation – aren’t allowed sufficient time to set in, and you’re left wanting more.
But Darius Khondji’s photography is splendidly transporting – this definitely needed to be on film stock, not digital – and adds to the sense that Gray’s picture could have been shot thirty years ago, unaffected by subsequent cinemtatic styles and trends. Christopher Spelman’s score adds to that feeling, unhurried and ennobling.
The greater emotive force of the film is Fawcett’s self-awareness of his obsession and that it could not be fought. He doesn’t even struggle internally with himself, except rhetorically, such that any right-minded man would have put away foolish dreams of a return to the jungle with his offspring in tow. There’s a sense of inevitability to the final mission (he went on more than the three depicted here, but 1925 was where it culminated), and Gray allows for non-commital creative licence in interpreting the fates of Fawcett and his son (to make this a more personal affair, their other companion, Raleigh Rimmell, has been excluded). He also instils a certain admirable quality into Fawcett’s acceptance of whatever is coming (“So much of life is a mystery, my boy” he movingly comforts his son “And you and I have made a journey other men cannot even imagine”). I was reminded a little of the dreamy melancholy of Barbet Schroeder’s La Vallée (after writing this I checked in on Mark Kermode’s review, only to hear him also namecheck it; I’d say something about great minds thinking alike, but I don’t like skiffle).
As to whether Fawcett’s end was then, well, at least as much of the ongoing attraction of his story relates to his fate as his elusive city. For Hemming, it’s an open-and-shut case (despite his source for this being unreliable). The picture’s note of ambiguity comes with a returned compass, strategically positioned by Gray such that it’s proof to Society member Keltie (Clive Francis) that Fawcett lives (in which case, the ceremony with his son surely constitutes a spiritual death and rebirth). I find Fawcett’s returned signet ring more compelling, whatever the truth there may be (Hunnam’s take, interestingly, is that he was murdered for his possessions by white party/ies unknown).
So Gray might have made a more illuminating picture about a flawed man of his time, one obsessed with Atlantis and theosophy and given to seeing such notions reflected in the world around him, with all the accompanying distortions that would likely ensue. What we get is undoubtedly much more vanilla, and infused to its moderate detriment with contemporary mores on the part of its director. Which doesn’t mean The Lost City of Z isn’t a curiously commanding, lingering experience on its own terms, and that its elegiac pace isn’t something of a balm.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.