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In Search of ‘The Lost City of Z’

May. 2, 2017
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In Europe and the U.S. in the years before World War I, with western imperialism at its zenith, intrepid adventurers set forth on much publicized journeys into the unknown. Some sought the poles. Others hacked through uncharted jungles. Occasionally, an explorer found a lost city, a Machu Picchu. British Maj. Percy Fawcett thought he was on the trail of a forgotten civilization in the Amazonian backwaters where Bolivia melts into Brazil. He never found it, though evidence has surfaced in recent years that he was onto something.

The Lost City of Z

Charlie Hunnam

Sienna Miller

Directed by James Gray

Rated PG-13

Adapted by writer-director James Gray from a recent biography of that largely forgotten adventurer, The Lost City of Z is a lush evocation of the past. Cinematographer Darius Khondji, who has worked with everyone from Wes Anderson to Woody Allen, brings a painterly sensibility to most every frame of the film. He baths the British Isles in honeyed light and colors the rainforest in deep shadows pierced by streams of bright sunshine. 

Although Gray is American, he handles the production with a Merchant Ivory sensitivity to people and history. The characters are fully inhabited by their actors, even when the roles are small. The biggest parts are played by Charlie Hunnam as Fawcett and Sienna Miller as his wife, the fiercely independent yet loyal Nina. Fawcett’s derring-do starts with the desire to reverse the dishonor his father brought to the family and to rise in British society. He is implacable whether confronting hostile Indians or arguing with the Royal Geographical Society, many of whose members scoffed at this jungle quest as a pipe dream.

The romance of adventure is streaked with madness in scenes indebted to a pair of Werner Herzog art house classics set in Amazonia, Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, The Wrath of God. At the last outpost on the rim of the unknown, Fawcett encounters a rubber plantation governed by a decadent aristocrat who keeps a full grand opera company for entertainment and keeps the natives as slaves. As Fawcett’s raft proceeds up the river and off the map, attackers unseen behind the thick cover of green shower his party with arrows. His Indian guide mentions “a city of gold and maize” deeper in the forest; he finds potsherds and petroglyphs; he is convinced. 

Although the screenplay puts a bright gloss on it, there is also a touch of madness in Fawcett’s behavior, beginning with a proud man’s obsession to prove himself and ending by endowing his El Dorado with the sum of his life’s meaning. The Lost City of Z measures the pain of his wife and children as they bore the burden of his dreams.

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