The Lost City of Z (2016)

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Deceptive titles might improve box office but they do little for a film’s integrity. The Lost City of Z (2017) will no doubt attract audiences with the prospect of a lost antiquity but that is not what this film is about. It’s a true story based on an ego-driven British explorer who is obsessed with finding an ancient civilisation so he can restore honour to his family name.

Set in 1905, the storyline covers an epic quarter of a century in several bold leaps of time and place. Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) struggles for advancement as a British officer because his gambling and boozing father brought disgrace to the family name. When given an opportunity to map the Amazon rainforest Percy leaves his pregnant wife Nina (Sienna Miller), knowing it might take years, all for the hope of personal glory. During the expedition, he learns of a lost ancient city full of untold riches but is forced to return to England before he can investigate. While British scientists scoff at the notion of a lost civilisation he is soon back in the Amazon, this time to find the lost city he calls ‘Z’. Forced again to abandon the expedition, the cycle is repeated many years later when he sets off for the Amazon with his now young adult son.

Despite having high production values, this film is an interesting example of thematic incoherence. Put simply: it does not know what it wants to be. It mixes an old-fashioned adventure tale with romantic melodrama, historical biography, thriller, period drama, with a World War I movie thrown in for good measure. The narrative arc is repetitive and the timeframe leaps are jarring. There are just so many times one can endure the sight of explorers encountering the same dangers and similar outcomes. The cinematography is magnificent but does not offset the trite dialogue and contrived skirmishes with Amazon natives and the British establishment. At times the dangers of exploring the Amazon appear as arduous as a weekend scouting camp except for the implausible moment when Percy stands tall under a shower of native spears shielded only by his journal.

The colonial supremacy and the ‘all-men-are-equal’ themes are laboured to the point of lecturing, and the script at times falls through the floor, like when Nina farewells a son she may never see again with the words “have fun”.  The main actors seem to play their stereotypes rather than express their roles with nuance and authenticity, and the relationship between Percy and Nina is meant to be foundational but conveys as plastic. While the film’s title promises excitement, the meandering story keeps disappointing so that by the end one doesn’t really care if the city existed or not.

Of course, British filmmakers are excellent in depicting the snobbishness of their society and this is a highlight of the film. The attempt to include moral discourse on British colonialism and feminism is tokenistic, but it does provide some insight into the ideas and attitudes that prevailed early last century. Some will find this uneven film engaging while others will welcome the credits when they arrive after what feels like an excessively long two hours and twenty minutes. At best, it is a solid tale made lacklustre in the telling.


Director: James Gray

Stars:  Charlie Hunnam, Sienna Miller