Friday, April 14, 2017

Epic Adventure 'The Lost City Of Z' Tiptoes Through Thorny Racial Issues



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

James Gray's The Lost City of Z, based on the best selling book by David Grann, is an epic adventure that brings to mind cinematic classics like Lawrence of Arabia, Apocalypse Now, and similar stories centered on obsessive men wading through plots rife with thorny racial issues.

The Lost City of Z centers on a fictionalized version of one Colonel Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a member of the Royal Artillery living in the shadow of his disgraced family name after his father loses the family fortune. Hoping to make a climb up the social ladder, Fawcett accepts an assignment from the Royal Geographical Society to map an uncharted river in the Bolivian jungle, leaving behind his wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), and their infant son, Jack, for the two year assignment.

Fawcett is joined by the often drunk but always loyal surveyor, Henry Costin (an unrecognizably bearded Robert Pattinson). As they journey through the treacherous jungle and along its deadly river (complete with piranhas!), they are almost killed by the area's indigenous people, and must bring their journey to an end just as Fawcett becomes convinced he is on the verge of discovering the remains of a previously unknown civilization.

When he returns to England, he reports on his findings. Hunnam does a great job in this scene, as he stands before the Geographical Society, his booming voice and passionate words eventually able to persuade the naysayers that he was on the verge of a discovery that would change what the West believed to be true about the birth of civilization and the "savage races."

Of course the Fawcett of the film is far more progressive than the Fawcett of real life, who was actually convinced he was going to find proof that white men were behind this long lost ancient civilization, which better explains why the Society was actually so willing to send him back to Bolivia for further proof.

In actuality Fawcett went on eight separate expeditions through Bolivia, and while the film wisely cuts that number down to three, it still suffers a bit from repetition, and by the third trip, you may find yourself thinking, "Bolivia....S**t. I'm still only in Bolivia."

Wisely, the film breaks up the expeditions with Fawcett's returns to home, as his family grows bigger with the addition of another son and a daughter. Miller has one great scene that elevates her role above the usual "wife complains about her husband working too much," in which she tries to make the case for her own ability to accompany him to Bolivia, holding the horrors of childbirth over his head as the ultimate "tough motherf**er" card; if she can push a child through her vagina, surely she can handle a trip through the wilds of Bolivia. Fawcett, and, of course, the mores of the day, strike her down.

The film also finds time (it's about 140 minutes long) to throw World War I into the story, with Fawcett deployed to the front lines and its trenches and chemical warfare. The horrors of these scenes are a slightly obvious but still affective ironic commentary on just what constitutes savagery and civilization.

Grey chose to shoot the film on film, no easy feat considering the Colombian jungle locations and the need for daily film development, but by doing so, he was able to capture the classic look and feel of those epic films gone by. The scenes in the jungle — and some lovely surreal moments that bring the jungle into Fawcett's life in England — are so lush you can almost smell the trees and feel the oppressive humidity.

The Lost City of Z uses classic cinematic style, but puts a modern spin on a classic adventure story, with a white hero who has no desire to conquer the natives, and, in fact, is eager to engage with them. (A scene where Fawcett and his crew are able to get the Bolivians to drop their spears and welcome them into their village by merely singing at them is an amusing play on the classic malapropism "music has charms to soothe a savage beast.") While this may not be true to the history of the actual man and his adventures, it's a change that makes the movie easier to swallow. Ultimately, The Lost City of Z is the type of movie they don't make any more....because they kind of shouldn't.

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