Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) has just returned from a mission to map unexplored areas in Amazonia. He courageously faces a crowd of rowdy academics who can’t believe the proposition they are hearing from their newly minted hero – that deep within the jungles peopled by cannibals is a civilization that predates that of England’s.
The idea is both ludicrous and dangerous, at least to their society, whose very dominion over the world rests on structures that thrive on rank, pedigree, and blunt inequality. Percy, who passionately defends that idea against jeers and insults from his tuxedoed peer, stands a hero, a man who is evidently ahead of his time. Nina (Sienna Miller), Percy’s wife, proudly watches her husband from the balcony where all the other wives are.
The film could have easily cut to Percy and his crew again traversing the Amazon, narrowly escaping vicious natives, and resisting the various forces of nature, and the movie would still be a thrilling picture that navigates its way around themes of obsession and adventure.
Instead, it cuts to a scene where Nina attempts to convince her husband to bring her along on his adventure. A quarrel ensues, with Nina defiantly defending her strengths and abilities from her husband’s presumptions. From the champion of liberal ideas of the scene before, Percy suddenly turns into the very same person whom he vehemently argues against, a person whose belief system is trapped within societal norms and conventions, a person of prejudice.
The Lost City of Z, filmmaker James Gray’s first venture outside New York City, is fascinating in the way it molds characters. They not only exist to push a straightforward narrative toward its conclusion, but they also populate settings that accurately evoke mores and attitudes representative of the era where the film is set. Gray, in previous films, presented New York City not just as a mere stage for events but as a sprawling community built from heritages and histories of compounding experiences. He does the same with The Lost City of Z, which depicts an antiquated world of astounding intricacies.
His canvass is broader but he nevertheless paints a sprawling picture of a people of rigid societal structures who are on the brink of enlightenment.
Value of brash repetition
Percy starts out struggling to escape a legacy tarnished by his father. He eventually ventures to liberate his family and the rest of the old world through his lifelong mission of satisfying his obsession with uncovering his lost city. Episodically laid out, his adventures are aptly repetitive.
Percy penetrates the jungle, encounters defensive natives, but never really reaches his aim. The sometimes infuriating repetition, however, only deepens the depiction of the main character’s obsession, further enriching the intriguing folly of Percy’s quixotic quest.
While it seems that The Lost City of Z obsessively dwells on its main character’s passion for the Amazon, its heart remains steadfastly at home in England.
Percy’s adventures provide the film its muscle and reach, with the invaluable help of cinematographer Darius Khondji, who defiantly shoots in the jungle mostly with available light, recreating the exploration replete with humor and danger. It is, however, Nina’s sacrifices as the wife of an absentee husband that completes the picture, making the entire endeavor vastly emotional and indubitably human.
Miller is astounding here, with each and every scene where she merely looks on in the background bursting with all of women's missed opportunities.
One only needs to fully absorb the tremendous beauty of the film’s evocative ending to conclude that most of Gray’s overflowing compassion is really reserved for Nina, and not the intrepid explorers whose accomplishments have already been both lauded and criticized over and over.
The Lost City of Z puts a subtle spotlight on the efforts of women who put up with men, their insecurities, and their crazed dreams to change the world.
The Lost City of Z is richly layered. It speaks volumes not just about the distant past and its supposedly ancient norms and modes. It also bears the burden of exposing truths about how humanity’s history has shaped persisting inequities and prejudices.
Surely, in the midst of epics that have so little to say despite their falsely immense scope and budget, Gray’s film is a towering achievement. – Rappler.com
Francis Joseph Cruz litigates for a living and writes about cinema for fun. The first Filipino movie he saw in the theaters was Carlo J. Caparas’ 'Tirad Pass.' Since then, he’s been on a mission to find better memories with Philippine cinema.