Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Apr 21, 2017 3:36 pm 
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For fans of James Gray and of Charlie Hunnam, of which I am both, The Lost City of Z - pronounced "zed," because the characters are British - is a thrill and a treat. It's something wholly new for Gray; you'd hardly expect it, though he went into costume-land for his last film, The Immigrant. British explorer Percy Fawcett may be Charlie Hunnam's most challenging role. This is a throwback to the good old adventure movies. It's about pursuing a dream, and entering the unknown. It's a story of a man seeking to redeem himself (his posh father was a gambler and a drunk). He explores the Amazonian river forests, 1906-1925, with a noble performance as an officer in trench warfare in Flanders in WWI, in the middle. Perhaps most importantly, he and his eldest son Jack (in grownup form played by the new "Spider Man" Tom Holland), who was then 22 (his father 56), disappeared, never to be found, lost in the forest, when all eyes were upon them, at a time of great excitement about explorations.

Let's set aside right away the issue of whether this is "true" or not. It should be obvious Percy Fawcett is an impossibly idealized figure, and a little embarrassing that John Hemming (who's now 82), a more recent and no doubt more extensive and successful Amazonian explorer and chronicler of Brazilian natives, should go out of his way to attack and debunk the man. His article in The Spectator is called "The Lost City of Z is a very long way from a true story — and I should know." Hemming, director of the Royal Geographical Society (a key player in the film) for over twenty years, has written eleven books on the Amazon, and probably had some pretty hairy adventures. But he has the misfortune not to have been lost when many thousand newspaper readers were following his reports. Hemming's attack sounds mean spirited and is clueless.

When Hemming in the article calls the real Percy Fawcett "a surveyor who never discovered anything, a nutter, a racist," and "incompetent," it makes him sound as angry and jealous as the movie's only real villain (but a big one), James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), an aging, overweight Shackleton expedition member who comes along with Fawcett with his regular teammates Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and Edward Ashley (Arthur Manley) and sabotages the venture through his incompetence and makes a lot of trouble for Fawcett when they return to London.

James Gray's version of Percy Fawcett, embodied by the handsome, charismatic, soft-spoken Hunnam, and based by Gray on a book by the journalist David Gramm (differences between the book, facts, and film are outlined in a Time summary by Eliza Bermann), is an ideal from another era. His effort to restore the family name is noble, though then his obsession with finding a lost civilization leaves that behind and also wipes out his own limited finances already squandered by his father. He is a dreamer (and follower of the occultist Madame Blavatsky). He is much away from family, but duty and passion are the reasons. His relations with his strong wife Nina (a terrific Sienna Miller) never deteriorate because their love is strong. There's conflict with his older son Jack, but that's warmly resolved as they become collaborators.

This is a story about moral values. Percy Fawcett is intrepid and brave. He may have had some racist ideas (rampant at the time of course), downplayed here. The idealized portrait is old-fashioned too. But the protagonist is complex enough so that doesn't seem false.

The strength of Gray's screenplay is in its portrait of a life that was met with failure and yet was exemplary, the way it makes the public and private life, the family passions and the life-threatening experiences in the jungle and on the battlefield, always equally important and equally interesting. There is so much balance that it can make this somewhat long movie seem perhaps a bit blah. But one must stop and think. Obviously Percy Fawcett is a figure to be admired for who he is, not what he accomplishes. That's the beauty of the movie. Old fashioned it is, but not in providing conventional payoffs. Gray does not compromise here to do something more "mainstream" - already in earlier films like The Yards and We Own the Night Gray belied the distinction between mainstream and auteur. He never does things in the expected way. This is helped by the cinematography of Darius Khondji, shot on film, of course (Gray is a passionate advocate). Scenes are rich and dark but not conventionally beautiful. Nothing is ever too brightly lit. Framing of river and jungle is often surprising, unexpected. The last hours of Jack and Percy - or the last moments when we, the viewers, get to see them - are the most adventurous staging and filming, dreamlike and beautiful. The tribal elder says (in subtitles) "This white Christian is not one of us. But he is not one of them either. We must find his spirit a home."

The Lost City of Z, 141 mins., debuted at the New York Film Festival 15 Oct. 2016; also at Berlin, Wisconsin, Cleveland, RiverRun and San Francisco. US theatrical release 14 Apr. 2017; wider 21 Apr.


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