NZIFF Review: The Lost City of Z

The Christchurch leg of the New Zealand International Film Festival is creeping ever closer to the final few days; but there are still magnificent films on offer until the curtain falls this coming weekend. While my chosen films have ranged from the cerebral (Stalker, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) to the heart-warming (Spookers), there have also been selections which definitely appeal to a wider audience – the first being Toa Fraser’s 6 Days (starring Mark Strong, Jamie Bell and Abbie Cornish), the second being James Gray’s The Lost City of Z.

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Based on the book by David Grann, The Lost City of Z revolves around Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam delivering a remarkable performance), a military man whose work for the Royal Geographical Society leads him to map hitherto uncharted areas in South America. After initial reluctance to undertake such a mission, Fawcett develops a thirst to uncover what he believes is a place untouched and undiscovered by European explorers: the lost city of Z. At times mocked for his explorations, other times applauded, he delves deep into the jungles of South America, leaving behind his beloved wife Nina and his children in order to achieve his quest.

If you’re expecting a rip-snorting journey through the jungles, the sort of stuff of Boy’s Own annuals (Piranhas! Angry tribesmen! Certain death!), you may come away unsatisfied. Although in the first act of the film it does feature this type of adventure, the story is very much more focused on Fawcett’s inner motivations.

There is a great deal of adventure, but this is less in the vein of anything Indiana Jones would have undertaken, and more a hero’s inner journey. Charlie Hunnam’s Fawcett is not a foaming-at-the-mouth eccentric, in fact he is quite the opposite. And though he is obsessed with finding his lost city, there is a genuine serenity to him. It’s as if the act of searching is enough to quiet his restless soul. Tellingly, when he is forced into World War I on the front lines, it’s not a picture of wife Nina that he carries with him as a talisman…it’s a charcoal sketch of the jungle. His motivation to stay alive during the war is not for the sake of his wife and children, it’s so he can venture through the Amazon again, searching for his lost city.

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Hunnam has such remarkable presence as Percy Fawcett, so much so it’s hard not to get wrapped up in his motivations without a thought for Sienna Miller’s Nina. And Miller is equally commanding in her role. While she stays behind in England, looking after the Fawcett children, she’s no simpering brood mare. There is a spark and an energy to Sienna Miller’s performance that elevates the character. And while James Gray’s script gives the character more room to move than other women in the time period, there’s always conditions – Nina is an equal partner in the marriage, but not in exploration. As frustrating as that might be, it’s reasonably authentic to the thinking of the times. Gray tries not to put a modern glaze on a historical time period.

Robert Pattinson (also appearing in NZIFF 2017 selection Good Time) exudes a maturity well beyond his years, almost unrecognizable in his role as Henry Costin. Costin and Fawcett are two sides of the same coin, and Hunnam and Pattinson have a dynamic that works magnificently in this film. And while only appearing in the last third of the film, Spiderman: Homecoming’s Tom Holland (playing Percy’s eldest son, Jack) is a scene-stealer; exuding a remarkable quiet intensity that is both moving and mature. Expect big things from Holland going forward.

And while this is a thoroughly enjoyable, beautifully filmed and acted piece of drama…there are a few places where character or plot development would have been welcome. For instance, Nina Fawcett is credited with assisting Percy to find archived documentation regarding the lost city…but it’s only acknowledged during a Royal Geographic Society meeting and with a single shot of Nina handing the paper proudly to Percy. Seeing her contribution to his research and subsequent journey might have been a welcome interlude.

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Also, Pattinson’s Costin is drunkenly thrust upon the audience in the first part of the film. We have little explanation into his character or motivations, and there’s even less information about his background. The father-son dynamic between Jack and Percy is left a little wanting. There’s such a to-do about Percy leaving for the War and Jack’s disillusionment and disappointment (because Percy has been such an absent father in his formative years), but then there’s a giant leap in their relationship years later when there is more than a little hero worship from Jack towards his father and a desire to follow in his footsteps. Perhaps, as a viewer, I ended up so absorbed in the drama that I wanted to know more…perhaps I was swept up in the story and immersed in the characters and their motivations that I was like an outsider in the cold, looking in and wanting to warm myself by the fire and hear their tales. If that’s the case (and I suspect it may well be), then James Gray’s script is made even more remarkable by this fact.

Nevertheless, The Lost City of Z was definitely one of the more audience-friendly picks at NZIFF. It’s more accessible than some of its Film Festival counterparts, and was definitely the best way to spend an evening. Beautifully filmed, remarkable performances from every single cast member, and a wildly engaging tale.

Lynnaire MacDonald, Publicist and Founder, Film Sprites PR

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