Biographical movies are hit and miss, but once in a while you get a gem in the same vein as “The Revenant” where biographical details are mixed with action and intrigue to create and engaging and adventurous story. That is the case with “The Lost City of Z” (pronounced “Zedd”), which follows the adventures of Percy Fawcett with Charlie Hunnam in the starring role. With Hunnam also starring in this weekend’s potential franchise starter “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” I decided to give his other early 2017 project a viewing and I wasn’t disappointed.
“The Lost City of Z” follows the exploits of famed explorer Percy Fawcett, as I said played by Hunnam, and is based on the 2009 biographical novel of the same name. Premiering at the New York Film Festival in 2016, “The Lost City of Z” presents a series of adventures as Fawcett makes three treks through the Amazonian jungle hoping to find a lost city of gold before he and his son disappeared during the third and final expedition. Along the way his adventures and his time in the war begin to take a toll on his own faith in himself and his relationship with his family as he seeks to return honor to his family name by discovering the lost city he, himself names “Zedd”.
It has to be said that “The Lost City of Z” is a massive adventure film that holds nothing back in terms of content and context. Charlie Hunnam is actually very fitting of the starring role, adding emotion and a sense of determination to a character documented so well in history an tormented by his need to find purpose in life to stand out in a changing world. Hunnam is joined by Robert Pattinson as journalist Henry Costin, Sienna Miller as Fawcett’s wife Nina, and Tom Holland as the eldest Fawcett son Jack and we see each of these supporting characters grow and interact with Percy Fawcett himself throughout the film’s run. Each actor gives a fully devoted performance and I was specifically impressed with the chemistry between the often overlooked Pattinson, ho can’t seem to shake his “Twilight” past, and Hunnam as their characters spend most of the screen time together during two of the three expeditions through the jungle. When Holland’s Jack replaced Costin in the third expedition we see equally impressive chemistry as a divided father-son pair bond over their mutual thirst for adventure and answers.
What’s impressive about this film is that is doesn’t ever show you the city. Many films would add a layer of fantasy to a story like this, taking liberties by presenting the city or giving viewers a glimpse of what others in this world may have never seen. We don’t get that here. We get a few pots and other items that hint at its existence making us as viewers just as hungry for answers as the characters. It stays very grounded in the reality of the time as we watch Fawcett’s obsession with a tribe he doesn’t even know for sure exist grows and each visit to the Amazonian land deliver new insight into Fawcett’s view on slavery and what he perceives as the superiority of the men others see as savages over those who are, on the surface, more civilized to the naked eye.
That to me was a highlight of the film. It raises a lot of cultural questions that are not only timely to today’s world, but fit it very will with it’s pre-World War I setting, especially as the war itself begins to show the savagery of civilized society in contrast to the more tame and purposeful actions of the natives in the Amazon. Despite the movie being named after the city of Z we get a great glimpse at what is happening in the rest of the world and the film evolves from biographical drama to striking commentary of who the real savages in this world are. One of my favorite scenes is an exchange between Fawcett and Costin as they overlook a tribe’s planting ground. Fawcett comments how precise and thought out the layout and choice of plants are implying that these “savages” are smarter than the world gives them credit for.
Also, this film could have easily been overstuffed with adventure through the Amazon, but surprisingly only maybe a quarter or, at most, half of the overall film takes place in the jungle. We see Fawcett on the battlefield of World War I and in many other settings in the civilized world trying to gain support for his expeditions and we, as the viewers, are left to form our own sense of wonderment and skepticism along with the extras on screen. Some shout in support of discovery, others mock Fawcett for his theories, but regardless we get no precise answer as to whether the city of Z is even a real thing and thus the viewers sense of adventure or skepticism match the people of the time, leaving the existence of the city at all open to interpretation and allowing the film to delve into it’s deeper narrative tackling themes of racism, family dynamic, and what truly separates men from monsters.
All that said though my biggest issues with “The Lost City of Z” is that while it has great things to say and is expertly paced and written, it can be incredibly tedious and boring. While attention to detail may shine in many adventure films, I go back to “The Revenant” or a great example of that, here it actually takes away from the film as “The Lost City of Z” comes off as overstuffed in many ways with exposition, establishing shots, and repetitive encounters over the course of the numerous Amazonian adventures Fawcett undertakes. There are exchanges and character building moments that serve to add to the film, but cause the overall production to drag on a bit longer than I personally feel was necessary. There are times where it’s hard to remain devoted to what you’re watching and a few scenes are repetitive seeing as we explore three different expeditions into the jungle in search of a city we never really get to see.
That’s the primary flaw with this film. It’s full of adventure, but there are so many moments where the adventure screeches to a halt that it’s hard to enjoy the ride to its full potential. Sure, some of it is necessary, but at times it makes you wonder why we needed to see this detail or that exchange when they add little to nothing new to the plot that wasn’t already there. To that end the filmmakers clearly tried to be artistic and meticulous with their production of this film and I’m not going to outright accuse them of going a bit overboard, but while “The Lost City of Z” is a fun and well done film, it’s not THAT much of a work of art where every detail and story point needs five minutes of screen time to establish. In fact, if they were going to do that, they could have spent a bit more time on other aspects of the film, adding new dialogue and context for the viewer to embrace. In all honesty this is a very nitpicky issue I have with the movie, but it’s one I found made it difficult for me to enjoy the experience as fully as the film deserves to be enjoyed.
In the end “The Lost City of Z” is a solid film and one that deserves to be considered among the best of 2017 early on. It provides adventure, heart, committed performances, and a story that, for all its mystery and subtle simplicity, is very easy to enjoy and appreciate if given the chance. Honestly I was surprised I enjoyed the film as much as I did, even if I found myself rather bored at certain parts. I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a simple, but engaging adventure story with a bit of biographical flair that bucks fantasy for reality in all the right ways.