“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.”
Bearing an undeniable and perhaps even indelible likeness to the sweeping and grandiose pictures of classic aged cinema, The Lost City of Z unfolds entirely unvarnished like the true companion piece that it is, so clearly born of the same ilk as its relatives in masterful moviemaking and cut from the same cloth as a bygone era. Its antiquity details the early 20th Century purview for us while the human element has been sanded down to the point of being just above the dermis’ final layer, a last line of defense from disease and infection, shocking the nerves with pain and grief and a dour sense of ambition that feels all too real. Here we have a film that deserves to be found – quite triumphantly and enthusiastically – by any and by all in need of the long-lost cinematic experience. This is a film in every sense of the word, and if ever there was a little modern movie worthy of being labeled as Brobdingnagian, The Lost City of Z is the right choice.
Taking flight in a grounded 1905 Ireland, Colonel Percival Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam in a career defining role) outwits his competitors in an elk hunt, taking his horse off the beaten path and utilizing his skill with a musket to kill the prize. Within this small windowpane of a worldview, we’re allowed to immediately peer into Fawcett’s multi-faceted and deferential motivation. This man is an adventurer with the pursuit of dignity and esteemed recognition from his peers and the powerful. With a father who fell victim to drink and to game, a grown Fawcett’s tainted and shameful spring of well-being and nobility has run dry, leaving him unranked and, as a consequence, thoroughly trivialized despite his contributions to his country and eventually to the RGS (Royal Geographical Society). Only then is he politely accosted with an unfair deal; survey the Bolivia/Brazil border and reclaim the family name. Quite predictably, he’s off to the Amazon, drunk on the idea of charting the masts of an already sunken ship.
Behind he leaves his wife Nina (a ceremoniously and unsurprisingly sensational Sienna Miller), and from there it’s a visual splendor worth celebrating, traveling with his soon-to-be comrades Corporal Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley) and Corporal Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) in a series of expeditions that can only be seen to be believed. There’s maggot infested skin, blood-soaked vomit, delirium and dehydration. And still Fawcett proceeds like a man obsessed and infatuated with a fever-pitch dream; finding a lost city consumes him, especially after their Indian slave guide details such a place and Percy stumbles upon advanced pottery scattered throughout the farthest reaches of the green desert. For so many foreigners in our contemporary unrest, the American dream involves a predated white-picket fence. For Percy, maybe that sense of escapism from reality just as easily air-mailed his mind to the clouds and his body to the Amazon. Our fragile species so often looks for answers in all of the wrong places.
At a certain point – maybe it’s the beginning of the expedition’s daunting second trek into the unknown Amazonian forests – we come to realize that this venture has been decided and acted upon from an almost purely idealistic and unrealistic nature. Fawcett’s an equally flawed man and a romantically civilized figure, falsely yet intentionally shown by James Gray without his embedded racism or classicism. He’s flippantly guided by his ego in search of a previously unencountered civilization, pushing forward not only to equate the Indians to the levels of intelligence surmised and assumed by the English, but to peacefully capture the spirit of these undocumented cultures before the Americans come in with their guns blazing. This is the most overwhelming observation and keen assertion that The Lost City of Z makes; we are mere mortals, and although it proclaims that “we are all made of the same clay,” the different dyelots are still enough to cause hate and intolerance. Not since Schindler’s List or The Tree of Life have I seen such a lavishly photographed movie that made me question every second of its coloring, its pacing, and its stunning appreciation for nature and humanity in all of its solvable simplicities and intricate complexities. I’m sure it’ll get lost in the sea of awards chatter since it’s been released so early, but Gray’s picture is deserving in so many categories. You can sift through soil for months without finding such a diamond.
Deep within the brush and the heat and the squalor of The Lost City of Z’s primary theme – that whether it be a life lived by the English erudites or the supposedly sacrilegious savages, civilization is a term worth pondering and dissecting – we’re left with questions. Why does a boy (Tom Holland) who grows up hating his missing father allow himself to become a spitting image of the man? Why do the prosperous seek to investigate the paths of the barren? And why do we allow spoken language to limit us to no end? These are the questions raised, and the fluid beauty awoken in the timelessness of The Lost City of Z champions further exploration while tempering its expectations and its deficiencies. It is of the same DNA as Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, Francis Ford Coppolas’ Apocalypse Now, and Werner Herzog’s duo of Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God. I try to refrain from dolling out the masterpiece designation on pure whim, but this pristine picture earns such a distinction. This is cinema.
“To dream, to seek the unknown, to look for what is beautiful is its own reward.”
Rating: 5 out of 5