The Lost City of Z (2016) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Searching for a lost civilization in jungle

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“The Lost City of Z” is something we rarely see these days: a contemporary epic film brimming with classic filmmaking style. As patiently following its hero’s life as well as his several risky explorations in the Amazonian jungle, the movie slowly immerses us into its world via its vivid, palpable sense of time and space, and it rewards us with numerous haunting images which will linger on you as you look back on what and how the movie is about.

The movie is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by David Grann, and its opening sequence, which is unfolded in one rural area of Ireland, 1905, introduces us to its hero Percy Fawcett (Charile Hunnam), a young, ambitious British officer who does not hesitate in front of any chance for recognition. While he surely impresses others with his sharpshooting during a stag hunt, that does not help him much when he attends the following party to which several important figures come. Although the movie does not explain a lot, everyone knows some disgraceful thing committed by his father a long time ago, and that has certainly affected his reputation even though he has tried hard to regain his family’s honor.

However, there comes an unexpected chance in the next year. The Royal Geographical Society requests him to survey an uncharted jungle area on the border between Brazil and Bolivia, and he agrees to do the job for that although that means he will be separated from his dear wife Nina (Sienna Miller) at least for a year. While he is on a ship to South America, he is joined by Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson, who is nearly unrecognizable with his bushy beard), and we soon see them doing their surveying job alone in the jungle.

Although the job is naturally hard and difficult due to the hot, humid jungle environment surrounding them, Fawcett and Costin keep doing their duty, and we get a mesmerizing moment when they come upon a rubber plantation town in the middle of the jungle. As they approach to the town, they suddenly hear the music, and they soon find that it is from an ongoing opera performance being held inside the town. While watching this moment, I could not help but think of Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo” (1982), a great film which is about one rubber business man’s grand, ambitious plan for bringing opera to his Amazonian jungle town.

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After getting an indigenous guide from a rich rubber business man played by Franco Nero, Fawcett and his men continue their expedition along a big river although the British government instructs him to abort the mission, and we see them going through several moments of danger and despair. At one point, they are suddenly ambushed by an indigenous tribe, so they hide themselves in the water, but, not so surprisingly, it turns out that there is also a considerable peril in the water.

As days go by, they become more desperate and starved, but then they finally arrive at their final destination, and that is where Fawcett comes across a few things which might be the evidence of an old civilization. After safely returning to England with fame and glory, he openly argues about the possible presence of a lost civilization in the jungle, and he is determined to prove that despite many ridicules from his peers.

That determination of his naturally results in the strains in his relationship with Nina, who had to raise his children alone while he was struggling in the jungle. Actively supportive of her husband, she even unearths a small but crucial record for her husband’s supposedly fantastic argument, but he does not allow her to join his new expedition although he has respected her as his equal, and the movie makes a small good point on the sexism during the early 20th century through her disadvantaged position.

Fawcett’s second expedition into the jungle turns out to be more difficult and hazardous, and there eventually comes a point where he must stop the expedition even though it looks like his lost city, named ‘Zed’ by him, seems to be within his reach. The World War I begins not long after he comes back to England, and he becomes focused on other things as he goes to the war along with many other soldiers, but then he finds himself lured by another possible chance after the war is over.

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As spending considerable time to the wartime scenes, the second half of the movie feels unnecessarily overlong at first, but it works as a part of the big picture envisioned by director James Gray, who also adapted Grann’s book for his film. Taking his time, Gray lets individual moments flow along the plotline as steadily building up narrative momentum, and many of these scenes are visually stunning as imbued with a lot of beauty and verisimilitude. Cinematographer Darius Khondji, who did a marvelous job in Gray’s previous film “The Immigrant” (2013), deftly fills the screen with different distinctive moods as the movie moves back and forth between Europe and South American along with its hero, and the production design by Jean-Vincent Puzos and the costume by Sonia Grande are as impeccable as you can expect from a first-rate period drama.

As the human center of the movie, Charlie Hunnam, who has been mainly known for TV series “Sons of Anarchy”, gives a compelling performance which surely shows that he is a talented actor to watch, and he is supported well by other good performers surrounding him. While Robert Pattinson demonstrates again that he is willing to go for any role more interesting than his vampire character in the Twilight movies, Sienna Miller holds her own small place well as a strong woman who understands her husband more than anyone else, and Tom Holland is also solid as Fawcett’s first son Jack, who resents his father at first for many years of his absence but ironically becomes his enabler later in the story.

Because of its slow narrative pace, “The Lost City of Z” will probably demand a certain amount of patience from you, but you will find it rewarding once you accept from the start what it intends to do. I admired its evocative atmosphere while enjoying its main cast members’ performances, and I certainly appreciated how the movie eventually arrives at the finale which may be a little too ambiguous for some of you but was quite satisfying for me. This is a fascinating journey to be experienced, and I may revisit it someday for getting more from it.

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