Film Review: ‘The Lost City of Z’ is a grand adventure with more on its mind than speed and splashiness

By Dan Cava

May 1, 2017

The Lost City of Z is a relic of a bygone era. The movie depicts the true story of Percy Fawcett, a British man who spent his life’s work looking for an uncharted city in South America. Fawcett’s exploits thrust him into the treacheries of jungle, war, and aristocracy. The beginning of the 20th century was the last time that geographic discovery acted as a metaphor for the progress of Western civilization, and Fawcett’s expeditions are both created by and burdened with the ideals of time.

Charlie Hunnam as Percy Fawcett

Veteran director James Gray knows that the early 1900s itself is perhaps the most important character in the movie. His grounded, methodical camerawork and Se7en cinematographer Darius Khondji’s dark, naturalistic lighting bring remarkable tangibility to the post-Victorian age. Normally fresh-faced actors Charles Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy), Robert Pattinson (Twilight), and Tom Hollander (Spider-man in the current Marvel movies) lay down their modernity in exchange for the earnestness of the period. The approach, like the setting, is strikingly old-fashioned.

That is the other way in which The Lost City of Z feels like a product of the past. Gray’s simplicity, the story’s directness, the action’s modesty — they all feel like features of a wonderful old Hollywood genre we rarely see nowadays: the sober adventure film. I’m reminded of the work of John Huston, David Lean, and more recently Peter Weir. Like Weir’s Master and Commander, one of the few movies in recent memory that shares this category, The Lost City of Z’s PG-13 rating is less about target audience and more a simple reminder that one should at least be approaching adulthood before one can expect to recognize, much less enjoy, the movie’s steady pleasures.

Robert Pattinson as Corporal Henry Costin

No doubt a more overtly rousing version of Fawcett’s story could have been concocted, but it certainly not needed. The Lost City of Z is a grand adventure, a serious movie with more on its mind than speed and splashiness. It does not assault; it invites.

Movies like this rarely seem to stay in theaters long, and true to form, The Lost City of Z is only in limited release. And while mostly excellent, it is not a perfect movie. Hunnam’s lead performance is solid but not stirring, and the solemn tone would have benefitted from a touch more levity. Yet I hope audiences will seek this film out, for its own sake and for the sake of supporting intelligent entertainment at the cinema. Here we have a rare chance to escape both from the modern era and from modern methods of movie mayhem. The Lost City of Z is more than worth finding.

Star Rating: 4 out of 5

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