The Lost City of Z Obsessively Obsesses over Obsession

As has become my custom with weekends bereft of movies I’ve been actively looking forward to, I chose The Lost City of Z almost at random. I remembered reading some AVClub article discussing it (I believe from when it was in the festival circuit?) and then I totally forgot about it until it premiered this past weekend. I didn’t even know it was based on a true story until the very end of the movie (though I strongly suspected, and director James Gray was reportedly loose with his source material).

The Lost City of Z begins in the year 1906. Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hannum) is part of the higher crust of British society, but just barely. He has, as a character puts it early on, “made an unfortunate choice of ancestors”. His father gambled away the family fortune and drank himself to death, which haunts Percy. The Royal Geographical Society offers him a chance to reclaim his family’s good name: by going to Brazil and mapping an unexplored and dangerous river he can once more gain respect. Leaving behind his progressive and supportive wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and joined by fellow explorer Mr. Costin (Robert Pattison) Percy sets off to Brazil. There he finds evidence of a lost civilization that could predate, according to him and much to the ire of his fellow Englishmen, European civilization.

Percy’s journey starts as a quest to prove himself, and while this remains a driving force his character grows more complex. Hannum’s pitch perfect performance, along with strong editing, music choices, and beautiful cinematography demonstrate his growing attraction and deadly fascination with the jungle. He is an Englishman in the 1900s, and the world he is seeing is unseen by white eyes ever before. His obsession is dangerous, destructive, all-absorbing, understandable, persuasive, and beautiful.

The performances all suggest complex and believable characters. The film is ostensibly an adventure film, and Hunnam’s charm as well as Pattison’s swashbuckling gruffness (Pattison here nearly unrecognizable and very, very good) sell us the adventure sections well. But the home drama is equally well observed and performed. It’s difficult to argue Percy is wrong in his desires to gain notoriety and honor, or to prove the existence of the city he is so certain exists (a discovery which would change our view of history), and Sienna Miller’s Nina never fully accuses him of being selfish, but she also doesn’t hide the pain his frequent years-long absences cause. The film oscillates between Amazonian adventure to British period piece drama to WWI war film with ease, and each scene works well as its specific genre while still feeling strongly in service of the overarching narrative.

While the performances are stunning, the real drive of The Lost City of Z is the propulsive narrative. As Sam has said before, we focus perhaps too much on performance and writing on this blog, and The Lost City of Z is a film where those things could be praised endlessly. What really sells the film, however, is the pulse pounding forward motion, both in Amazonia and Europe. The movie feels rhythmic and fluid, scenes melting into each other, each sequence dreamlike. Green gas in WWI overlaps with misty canopies of Amazonia. Boats lazily float down river until spears fly out of the jungle. Huge vast expanses of greenery and deep murky dusty rooms in England. The film feels and looks expansive, mysterious, and deep, with inky blacks and evocative sights that still not many people see. And always the film circles around and funnels towards the dark ineffable jungle, a place the characters can’t escape, don’t want to escape. Even the score feels militaristic and hypnotic, pounding along throughout the entire film, weaving through scenes agilely.

The film is masterful because it’s propulsion never feels forced. The film simply unfolds in front of us. We learn about the characters, we learn about the jungle, we float along and get drawn in before we realize how deep we’ve gone, or where exactly we’re going. But by the time we ask those questions, it’s too late. The Lost City of Z is a truly immersive film, in that it both makes us invested in the characters while simultaneously putting us through the same experience. A deeply mysterious film with mysteries you wish desperately to unlock and understand and marvel at, The Lost City of Z feels like Percy and Nina’s Amazonia, tantalizing and a little dangerous. It’s a beautiful, naturally told film, and one that I don’t doubt will grow on me over time as it continues to worm deeper into my psyche.

The Lost City of Z got lost 9 out of 10 times.

OTHER THOUGHTS

  • I feel like a lot of times prestige dramas or art house films forget to be funny (definitely prestige dramas more often than art house, but both tend to take themselves a little seriously). Charlie Hunnam is outright hilarious in some scenes in this flick.
  • Reportedly, James Gray toned down Percy’s racism for this film. The Percy within the movie is extremely sympathetic to the Amazon tribes and peoples, and believes the Europeans have misread them due to cultural differences. It’s an admirable character trait, and Gray tempers it nicely by making Percy progressive as far as gender roles go, but still not super progressive, being a male in the early 1900s.
  • How old is Robert Pattison. It took me a good stretch of the movie to recognize him, and I was honestly waiting for him to show up. A real strong performance. Very impressed by the career path both he and Twilight alum Kristen Stewart have taken.

SUGGESTED READING

  • This is based on a book by the same name, and I would bet you a pretty penny it’s a good read.
  • The view of racism Percy discusses, and the Englishmen’s refusal to believe in a ancient American city predating Europe brings to mind the opening of the superb book Guns, Germs, and Steel. In the introduction, author Jared Diamond affirms his belief that people don’t want to be racist towards Africans and Native Americans, but argues the undercurrent of racism will continue until we recognize factually that these societies were not quite as evolved of conquerers as Europeans solely due to a series of accidents outside their control. It takes for granted that the more advanced society is the better society, but besides that it’s an interesting view, not aimed at converting hard core racists but rather at combatting people who consciously recognize other races as equal while subconsciously still holding historical evidence of advancement in their minds. It’s an interesting introduction and an exhaustively researched book which I highly recommend.
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