You often hear the complaint ‘they don’t make films like they used to,’ but that charge cannot fairly be levelled at the new action-adventure release The Lost City of Z. It feels exactly like a film ‘they’ used to make. It has a faintly timeless quality; technological advances aside, it wouldn’t look out of place had it surfaced any time since World War II.
The Lost City of Z is based on the fascinating life story of Colonel Percy Fawcett, a British officer who, more than 100 years ago, led expeditions into unmapped jungle regions of South America, searching for evidence of an extinct civilisation.
Fawcett, played by Charlie Hunnam, a decent British actor who has not yet quite achieved star status, is swiftly established as a capable army officer whose advancement may have been hindered by his lowly upbringing. “Rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors,” a superior officer observes disdainfully. Yet his passion for charting unknown regions of South America is clearly genuine, and the Royal Geographical Society finances his first modest exploration of this unknown terrain.
Fawcett bids adieu to his strong-minded wife (Sienna Miller) and his young son Jack (Tom Holland) for a projected two-year trip. He takes with him Henry Costin, an ex-military comrade (Robert Pattinson, barely recognisable behind a thick beard) and a handful of porters and guides. At this stage Fawcett seems like an updated Don Quixote, but as the film progresses, his steely determination to achieve his goals becomes clear. He becomes less of a map-maker and more of an obsessive – a progression familiar in stories of this kind.
But the jungle scenes (actually shot in Colombia) offer terrific visual opportunities to director James Gray and his cinematographer Darius Khondji. The film looks terrific – lush, verdant and utterly foreign, full of unforeseen dangers, both animal and human. As the expedition’s barge makes its way up river, there is an overwhelming sense of known civilisation being left behind for – who knows what?
The party encounters tribesmen, some friendly, but others openly hostile, firing off arrows in their direction. But in his low-key manner, Hunnam effectively suggests a subtle change in Fawcett’s attitude; he seemingly becomes immune to fear, and ploughs on with his mission, regardless of its obvious dangers. At this stage, Hunnam looks like a sound casting choice – had this film been a vehicle for a star actor, it would have been less credible.
Scenes of the barge making its way up river inevitably recall a couple of classic films: Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God. But whereas madness and megalomania featured strongly in those films’ later stages, The Lost City of Z is a milder, less operatic story. Fawcett is never devoured by his mission; it simply makes him more intractable.
This may be why it feels overstretched at 141 minutes (12 minutes shorter than Coppola’s film). Once we’ve seen Fawcett and his crew at large in the jungle, dealing with all its various perils, the story has nowhere to go in dramatic terms – except for more expeditions of a similar nature. The film’s third act feels sluggish and anti-climactic.
The Lost City of Z may be good-looking and, for its first half at least, somewhat intriguing – but it falls far short of being a classic.
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