****THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!! THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!!
Estimated Reading Time : 4 minutes 58 seconds
My Rating : 2 out of 5 stars
My Recommendation : SKIP IT. If the film intrigues you, see it on Netflix or Cable.
The Lost City of Z, written and directed by James Gray based upon the book of the same name by David Grann, is the true story of British explorer Percy Fawcett and his quest to find an ancient lost city in the Amazon in the first part of the twentieth century. The film stars Charlie Hunnam as Fawcett with supporting turns from Sienna Miller and Robert Pattinson.
The Lost City of Z is a great story, but a sub-par film. I have not read the book it is based upon, so maybe it is more successful as a companion piece to the book, but it fails as a stand alone cinematic enterprise.
The problems with The Lost City of Z are numerous, but the most imperative issue is that it is thematically and structurally unsound. The movie never quite figures out what it wants to be and therefore tries to be about too much and ends up being about nothing. Is it a film about colonialism? Imperialism? Patriarchy? The suffocating rigidity of British society? The perils of chasing glory? Losing ones family by trying to save it? There are lots of choices to make, too many, and thus the film wanders from one topic to the next never fleshing any one out to any satisfactory depth.
In terms of structure, the film's narrative is sprawling and poorly constructed which makes the movie feel interminably long and unconscionably meandering. A common pitfall for bio-pics is that the director feels compelled to show as much of the hero's life as possible, which almost always ends up a cinematic disaster. By showing everything we end up understanding nothing. No drama can take root and flourish when a film is so busy recreating events to manufacture the broadest and most vast of stories. This bewildering filmmaking decision is furthered by poor editing in which many tiny storytelling threads are revealed but none of them are pulled, resulting in a rather scattered movie going experience.
Director James Gray is very good at making movies that SHOULD be good, but never are. His filmography is littered with noble failures and misfires. The Immigrant, for example, looked great but wasn't a great film because its story was all over the map. The same is true for all of Gray's other films. He must be phenomenal at making film pitches in studio offices, because he is not very good at making the actual films.
What struck me the most about The Lost City of Z was how poorly shot it was. The film's topic brings to mind many other much better films, like The Mission, New World and even Apocalypse Now. The biggest difference from those films though is that they were simply gorgeous to look at. The Lost City of Z's visuals are as murky and muddled as its storytelling. Gray and cinematographer Darius Khondji are never able to exploit the staggering beauty of the jungle to their cinematic advantage. When the film opens in Ireland and England, the dreary visuals are to be expected, but the transition to the Amazon never brings with it an expansive stylistic shift to a broader color palette. The films photography starts off suffocating and claustrophobic and stays that cinematically myopic throughout, which is a terrible artistic error.
Gray and Khondji are also unable to create any sort of visual texture throughout the entire film. I kept yearning for the dazzlingly simple work of Emmanuel Lubezki in Terence Malick's New World. Lubezki and Malick were able to use natural lighting to propel their story and draw the viewer in to a visceral experience shared with the lead characters. Every slight bump in the bark of a tree or in the White men's armor was accentuated to a dazzling degree. In contrast, Gray and Khondji deliver a flat and stale picture of the Amazon, one of the most beautiful places on earth. One need only watch Roland Joffe's The Mission to see how a filmmaker can make the most of such a stunning setting.
Charlie Hunnam plays lead character Percy Fawcett. Hunnam is best known for his starring turn in the FX motorcycle gang show Sons of Anarchy. Hunnam is remarkably handsome, of that there is no doubt. He certainly looks the part of a movie star, and I was definitely rooting for him heading into the film. But about mid-way through The Lost City of Z it occurred to me, Charlie Hunnam simply lacks "it". Some people have "it" and some people don't, and I am afraid Mr. Hunnam is of the latter group. This is a big year for Hunnam, as he is making his big push for movie stardom with The Lost City of Z and King Arthur to follow quickly on its heels. I think Hunnam will be unable to carry a film because he simply is not charismatic, magnetic or compelling enough to do so. He isn't a bad actor, but he certainly is not a great one. His technique in The Lost City of Z seemed to be little more than whispering most of the time. He never demands the audience watch him, and is unable to lure the viewer in to his intimate and private world. There is an artistic wall around Hunnam as an actor, and it keeps him safe and secure but cold and distant from his audience.
Sienna Miller and Robert Pattinson play Fawcett's wife and comrade respectively. Miller is an actress I never really think about, but she is always very good when I see her in something, and The Lost City of Z is no exception. Miller is impossibly beautiful, and her bone structure is a thing of perfection, but what makes her really note worthy is the power she is able to generate in her stillness. There is no wasted or extraneous movement from Miller, just a focused stillness that brings with it a palpable magnetic force.
Pattinson is a pleasant surprise as Costin, Fawcett's aide in his journey into the Amazon. Pattinson is unrecognizable with a giant beard covering his well known face. He creates a genuine and intriguing character that gets swallowed up by the film's epic ambitions, which is a shame, it would have been wiser to mine the Facett-Costin relationship for all it was worth.
In conclusion, The Lost City of Z is a major disappointment. No need to waste your hard earned dollars seeing this film in the theatre, but if the idea of it intrigues you as it did me, then wait to see it for free on cable or Netflix. I have heard it said of the film that "they don't make movies like this anymore", there is a reason for that, because movie's like this aren't very good. There is a truly great film lurking in the bowels of The Lost City of Z, but director James Gray was unable to discover it. Much like the film's protagonist, we as viewers are left agitated by the dreams of glory and beauty that lie unearthed deep in the heart of the Amazon and of the film. The Lost City of Z is a lost opportunity, and seeing it would be a fruitless journey of self-deception and anguish for any who dare to begin the quest.