‘The Lost City of Z’ is a Stunning, Powerful Epic

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The Lost City of Z

People love to say about movies, “They don’t make ’em like this anymore.” It’s an easy statement to say but it glosses over some of the more troubling aspects of cinematic history. Yes, there aren’t many epics that can stand alongside the films of David Lean, but those classical epics also suffer from a viewpoint that often validates the imperialistic attitudes of western culture and that’s only amplified by their tendencies to feature British or American actors painted so they can play members of certain ethnic groups. I’m not saying those movies are bad because they’re of their time, but to say that they represent a lost ideal means that one has to ignore the double-edged nature of these movies. The latest film from writer-director James Gray, The Lost City of Z, is a classical epic in the mold of Lean’s majestically directed classics without that the troubling aspects that operate as an endorsement of imperialism and features no actors painted to represent an ethnic group.

The Lost City of Z is a stunning piece of cinema, an epic that never travels along the path you expect. The story of Percival Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) and his expeditions through the Amazon in search of “Z,” a lost city which Fawcett believed had major archeological implications for the region, spans over decades at the dawn of the 20th century. Throughout the decades that the film covers, Percival Fawcett takes three trips deep into the heart of the Amazon. On his first journey, Percival leaves behind his pregnant wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and their young son in an expedition that will hopefully allow the rising British officer to shed the shame from his family name. On the journey, Percival befriends and earns the undying loyalty of Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley). Their expedition is successful in charting the region, but Percival’s discovery of pottery artifacts leads him to a theory that he’s not far from an ancient city that has been lost to time.

Returning to England, Percival’s theories are scoffed at by the British intelligentsia who doubt that the savages of the jungle could’ve possibly had a civilization before the western explorers arrived. Rich benefactor James Murray (Angus MacFadyen) is intrigued by Percival’s discovery and bankrolls another expedition which he’ll join. That, however, proves unfruitful as the aristocrat is ill prepared for the harsh terrains of the jungle, forcing Percival, Henry, and Arthur to turn back before they’ve reach their destination.

Then the World War I breaks out, and the trio of Percival, Henry, and Arthur must fight on the front lines. Stuck in the trenches, Percival still dreams of the lost city and yearns for another trip into the heart of the Amazon. He’ll get his wish years after the conclusion of the Great War, and he’ll be accompanied by his young son Jack (Tom Holland). Father and son venture into the unforgiving terrain of the jungle in search of Percival’s lost city.

Up until this point, Charlie Hunnam has failed to win me over as leading man. His performance here is the best of his burgeoning career. As the driven explorer, Hunnam conveys everything required of Percival. The determination and dreams of Percival Fawcett are all present in Hunnam’s performance. The supporting cast is also excellent, with Robert Pattinson and Tom Holland each delivering solid performances in support of Hunnam’s excellent leading turn. Most surprisingly, though, is the fact that Sienna Miller is once again tapped with playing the weeping wife left behind by her husband (a la American Sniper), yet Gray is able to craft a genuine character for her to play, one that is smart and capable with agency.

James Gray’s adaptation of the book by David Grann takes on a personality that seems to weave and out through various cinematic classics that preceded it. There are shades of Fitzcarraldo and Apocalypse Now in The Lost City of Z, and Gray’s direction and precise editing bring to mind some of the most stunning cuts in the epics of the aforementioned David Lean. Gray uses the historical content of the film to highlight both the best and worst of humanity, from the thrill and collaborative nature of exploration to the horrors of slavery. The best and worst of mankind is a theme that runs throughout the film in all of its scenes regardless of its setting.

Like the explorers of its story, The Lost City of Z never takes the easy route to its destination. The events that unfold within James Gray’s film never go as expected, which makes it a thrilling epic to behold. The Lost City of Z doesn’t feature a white savior nor does it endorse the viewpoint of the British imperialistic interests. They don’t make ‘em like they used, because The Lost City of Z has the form of a classical epic without the problematic approach towards other cultures. All of which makes The Lost City of Z a special film.

The Lost City of Z
  • Overall Score
4.5

Summary

A magnificently directed epic from writer-director James Gray, The Lost City of Z is a historical drama featuring a career best performance by Charlie Hunnam as a man searching for an archaeological lost city.

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