Summary: Explorer Percival Fawcett’s numerous attempts to find an ancient Amazonian city in the 1920’s.
Try not to be too misled- I don’t think this is a bad movie, it just got 65% of the way there for me. The Lost City of Z (pronounced “zed” as British people and most other parts of the world do) is, ah, 25% The New World, 2% No Man’s Land from Wonder Woman, 50% Apocalypse Now, and 13% Australia. (That last one is a curveball, huh?) Don’t go into this expecting Indiana Jones because you will be mad.
Z is based on a book of the same name, which is in turn based on the real-life explorations Percival Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), who seeking various ways to clear his family name’s reputation. After his first mission to map the Verde River, Fawcett becomes obsessed with finding an ancient Amazonian city, which he believes to be an older civilization that Britain itself and dubs Z.
I found various parts of this movie to be very interesting specifically the entire first and second acts, which are very Apocalypse Now. Z has some very dynamic characters, starting with our Mr. Fawcett. In this time of colonialism and exploration, Fawcett stands apart from his peers in his behavior towards natives- he refuses to demonstrate any sort of violence if met with resistance and he acknowledges it’s their lands, even emphasizing “uninhabited by white man” when speaking of undiscovered territory. There’s a big part of him that refuses his colleagues’ perspective of this other culture.
The issues I do take with the film start with its character development. I simply don’t know enough about the characters other than Costin was drunk when he met Fawcett and the bit about Fawcett’s reputation- I don’t know where Fawcett found his preservation-over-domination attitude or why his methodologies in the expedition are so vastly different from other explorers. I would have liked to know, though! Fawcett is just a really interesting dude and I’d like to know how, in this time period, he came to the conclusions he did. For example, this is his first time in the Amazon and he interacts with a slave trader- on his face, we can see Fawcett doesn’t approve of the business, but why? How? He remarks that the crop planting of an indigenous tribe is impressive in its mathematical layout but what else has he seen? I also found Fawcett’s argument with his wife (Sienna Miller) where she offers to accompany him on the journey to be out of place- I see they were trying to make her character more than a stay-at-home wife, but him versus his family lost a bit of its effect when she was just as willing to leave the children behind. It was a questionable request on her part, though I did like the movement between England and the jungle as it just further emphasized how Fawcett was consumed by his ideas.
The funny thing about Fawcett is that he’s never really an undeveloped character- he more or less comes to us in one piece- but he feels largely unfinished. This is in no way a slight against Hunnam or any of the actors- Hunnam does a good job as Fawcett (better than I expected) and for the most part, so does the rest of the cast with their portrayals. This might be the first role where I really liked Robert Pattinson (Fawcett’s right-hand man, Henry Costin) and thought he finally shed everything from the Twilight franchise. I really liked their relationship- generally speaking, the men’s partnerships in this film are very well done.
There’s also an issue of pacing, which I think comes with the film’s inconsistent methods of storytelling. At two hours and 20 minutes, I probably could have done without 10-15 minutes as well. Shot on 35Mm film, it’s an absolutely beautiful work and inspires a sense of unknown and mystery in the right moments. However, while it aims to emulate The New World’s “in the moment” style that really achieved a sense of wonder, there’s too much dialogue that comes up in the second half that sheds the unpredictability and naturalness of that style. The style in which the dialogue is filmed also contrasts this- instead of things resonating as introspective, it feels a bit too brief and scene-y. I could have done with perhaps less editing and longer takes to really get into the mood this film deserved.
I appreciate what the film was trying to do and I think the film does merit accolade for its technical accomplishments, especially shooting on location in such a difficult terrain. And the production value, specifically the costuming, is just off the charts. There are moments in Z that kept me enraptured but I just wasn’t engaged throughout the entire movie. I would watch this if you are a fan of Charlie Hunnam (Prez!), as this is the most range he’s shown since Sons of Anarchy. Or if you like the themes of Heart of Darkness or that grocery shop scene in The Hurt Locker.