THE LOST CITY OF Z hired the wrong architect. A deceptively attractive layout repeatedly allows glimpses of Something Big, only to tangle curious and hopeful visitors in confused directions to elaborate but frustrating cul-de-sacs and abrupt dead ends.
Between 1906 and 1925 British soldier, surveyor and explorer Percy Fawcett led daring expeditions into unmapped reaches of the Bolivian and Brazilian Amazon, first on behalf of Imperial Britain and the august Royal Geographical Society, later on his own, pursuing his theory/dream of a vanished El Dorado civilization in the jungle. Bold beyond definition, ambitious to a fault, maybe a twee deranged, Fawcett’s tales made him a hero, celebrity, inspiration and legend. *
In some few fleeting moments Christopher Spelman’s music score for this 2016 adventure epic has a shimmering quality that recalls Miklos Rozsa’s masterful soundtrack for the 1942 Jungle Book, specifically a piece called “Song Of The Jungle”. Like Rozsa’s, Spelman’s notes glisten with a twinge of wonder and mystery, hinting at building excitement over a plunge into natural grandeur, exotica and thrills. This production embellishment, nostalgia gossamer on a vanished age of exploration and siren of the irreplaceable, seems fitting as a departure point (of diminished returns) for considering writer-director James Gray’s tentative catch & release handling of his bountiful material. It’s part old-fashioned bravura, with a sense of scale and lush period detail, part tiresome p.c. balderdash retrofitted to deliver a dose of Guilt (do take mine) to keep you from getting unduly Roused.
Working chiefly off the overly-speculative book (same title) by David Grann, Gray’s screenplay chronicles three of the eight journeys Fawcett made, bracketed by home-life issues (feisty suffragette wife and lonely kids left behind, repeatedly, for inordinate and hard-to-defend stretches), blustery challenges to his veracity and a jagged, unconvincing segment of battlefield service in World War One. Even with a languorous running time of 141 minutes, it’s a lot of fiber to chew, but Gray’s sepia-safe and stately presentation left out the sugar, salt and spice. **
The pacing of too many scenes either drags or jumps; the framing, editing and continuity is pretty poor. For a story about drive it’s passionless, for a saga about adventure it’s tame. Speeches meant to rouse are damped down, like the moviemakers are afraid to make noise: getting excited over rugged individualist exploits in wild locales doesn’t mean you approve of rapacious colonialism. The sluggish direction keeps you at table’s-end length from most of the characters, starting, crucially, with Charlie Hunnam’s overly-restrained Fawcett. Form-fit handsome but so reined-in he’s opiate, the British actor was more believable (and a lot more fun) as an American outlaw biker in Sons Of Anarchy than he is here as a native-born English officer and gentleman.
More than the muted lead, blame goes to director Gray and his play-every-angle script. Gray has the motivation-stifled Fawcett reminding the audience how sensitive he is to the indigenous tribes (sure), so that between popcorn gobbling they can feel better about inclusionist insularity. This tripe even takes in some cannibals (we don’t want to offend that segment of the box-office) and a gratuitous swipe at “the Americans and their guns“, which really takes the frostless natural-ingredients shite-cake for gall when that smugness comes from the mouth of a British military cog who’d just spent time helping slaughter people on the Somme.
As Nina Fawcett, the welcome and glowing Sienna Miller has to dish out modern-sensibility mini-lectures about “a woman’s place” but she brings enough grit into an otherwise ‘Meanwhile, the Wife With Fortitude’ role that she strikes brief sparks into her scenes. Once again we shake heads at how strangely under-used she is as an actress—will someone please give her a part worthy of her gifts? Robert Pattison hides his Twilight years behind specs and a beard, manfully doing what he can as Fawcett’s loyal assistant (the screenplay feebly offers him little help), while a beefy Angus Macfadyen (going for Orson Welles?) has some tasty, much-needed losing-it moments as a dangerously undependable glory hog. If no one else will by-Jove-chew the available scenery, make way for Robert the Bruce, lads…
Darius Khondji’s cinematography is generally effective (albeit often undercut by the diffuse direction and clumsy editing), especially the location filming on the Rio Don Diego and in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta of Colombia’s Magdelana Department. Other sequences were done at locales in Northern Ireland. Costumes, set design, props all fare well. The dialogue, as is too often nearly standard nowadays, is frequently mumbled and/or badly recorded. The ambient sound effects of birds and insects are also downplayed, and the brief action sequences–even a piranha attack– don’t generate sufficient adrenaline. Adventure through amber, with earmuffs. ***
At a cost of $30,000,000 (not much considering usual outlays today) it only returned $17,100,000. Reviews were in the main laudatory, but a substantial number of observers fault it as we do, for pulling punches, emotional lethargy and a draining solemnity.
Like Fawcett’s expeditions, this ambitious and intriguing enterprise lacks a reliable compass and wanders off the path— disappearing into its subject, its promise evaporating into that vast and alluring region holding the tantalizing treasures of the unrealized wish.
With Tom Holland, Edward Ashley, Ian McDiarmid, Clive Francis, Pedro Coello and a cameo by Franco Nero.
* Fawcett’s friends included H. Rider Haggard and Arthur Conan Doyle. Speaking of archaeological theories, you could tangent-away with the muse that our ongoing dinosaur & Big Monster love may be traced to Percy’s tracks. Doyle apparently based much of his 1912 classic “The Lost World” on the dogged explorer’s lectures, notes and photos from Bolivia. From Fawcett’s memoirs: “…monsters from the dawn of man’s existence might still roam these heights unchallenged, imprisoned and protected by unscalable cliffs. So thought Conan Doyle when later in London I spoke of these hills and showed photographs of them. He mentioned an idea for a novel on Central South America and asked for information, which I told him I should be glad to supply.” The popular book became the hit 1925 silent film, which catapulted the career of special effects & stop-motion photography magician Willis O’Brien, who gave us King Kong, then protégé Ray Harryhausen, whose creatures in turn inspired countless kids, including one with an exponential-overdrive imagination, Steven Spielberg.
** In recent times, the occasional throwback historical epic gets it right—The Last Of The Mohicans, Braveheart, Kingdom Of Heaven, Titanic, Troy—balancing the feel of the gone-by glory days with just enough cheek to pull in modern audiences who either missed out on or who saw and are starved-for the days of Lawrence Of Arabia and Co., real actual Casts of Thousands, surging music and a “Holy Cow–What A Show!” exit from the theater. More often than not you get the sloppy anachronisms of Pearl Harbor, or God forbid the remakes of Ben-Hur or The Magnificent Seven. Talk about tearing down statues…if you’re going to do that try to put up something else besides a Selfie to replace them.
*** What good is a 7.1 soundtrack if you need to use subtitles to understand characters speaking in casual conversation two feet from each other? This may have reached its sonic underkill in a recent highly-touted WW2 movie where the explosions are loud enough to blow out windows on a nearby freeway but without instruments you can’t make out every other word that Kenneth Branagh (a Shakespearean actor, for cryin’ out loud) says to someone six inches from his mouth. The jungle beckons, indeed…