“The Lost City of Z”
Directed by James Gray
It’s Brit Week in the Singer media world, as I’ll be reviewing three British offerings, including the WWII RomCom, “Their Finest”, and season 2 of “The Last Kingdom”, the Netflix/BBC co-production of the 9th Century English origin story. This post will examine James Gray’s British exploration bio-epic, “The Lost City of Z”.
It’s fairly easy to communicate why I like a movie, easier still to explain the reasons I love a film, and the most fun of all is the joy of writing why I loathe a film. It’s far harder to unearth the reasons a decent film leaves me flat….when the sum of terrific pieces are less than. And that’s where I am with “Z”. The direction of individual scenes is good. I am a huge James Gray fan, and have always loved the slice-of-life-meets-high-drama that infuse his films. The dialogue is, for the most part, solid. The visuals are terrific…even awe-inspiring at times…and the acting is, while uneven, pretty good. Even the pacing is consistently understandable. So…what went wrong for me? I think it boils down to three main issues:
- The size & scope of the story
- The performance of the lead character
- The incredibly intrusive score.
The story, which spans THREE expeditions to Brazil over thirty years, with the Battle of The Somme, in the middle, is just too massive to capture in 135 minutes. So, everything that should inspire and amaze gets short shrift. A three-year epic journey squeezed in to fifteen minutes of film does not satisfactorily express the cost to our lead’s family and self. Further, by the time we get to the third exploration, we don’t really even care all that much. I’m not sure Gray could have done anything differently to assuage this issue, other than to make it a longer film, which I would have accepted if it made me FEEL more. As it is currently, it is a LOOOOONG slog to the finish line, precisely because there isn’t enough of our empathy invested in the journeys (after the first).
But much of the burden must be shouldered by our lead actor, Charlie Hunman, who is, quite obviously, crushed by the role. As an adventurer, he’s fantastic and, as mentioned above, if we’d been given more time to understand his burgeoning – and lasting – obsession with the jungles of Amazonia, his shortcomings as an actor might have been less obvious. But, as it stands now, he is wiped off the screen by the amazing Sienna Miller. Her emotions, dreams, frustrations, and love are evident in every turn of an eyebrow. Her speeches carry the weight of her place and her time. And when they are on screen together, you become brutally aware that he has no capacity to wear Percy Fawcett’s skin when not in mortal conflict. Troublesome for a bio-pic. This role, as currently written and edited, would be tough for anyone to pull off, even Brad Pitt, who was originally slated for it. Hunman tries like hell, and has some brilliant moments….but…
And then there’s Christopher Spelman’s beautiful score. Beautiful on its own. UNBEARABLE in context of the film. For god’s sakes, Mr. Gray, let us SEE and HEAR without interference. For a film that begins with nothing but the sounds of the jungle to prepare us for the journey ahead, the music sure is LOUD the rest of the way through…which only adds to our exhaustion by the end. Thankfully, the highlights of the score are played over the closing credits, and I was able to hear how beautiful his music, orchestration and dynamics actually are. Really a stunning collection of themes. But, shhhhh….
On the positive side of the ledger are some of the performances, the cinematography, and the enlightenment provided by the telling of the story itself. As noted earlier, Miller is sensational. But she’s not alone. Robert Pattinson is so good, I didn’t realize it was him until I saw the credits. And Edward Ashley rounds out the main crew with distinction and conviction. The only real dud is Angus MacFayden, who seems to only be able to play sardonic, sarcastic, seething and surly in everything he’s in (which probably means he needs a new agent). Cinematographer Darius Khondji and production designer, Jean-Vincent Puzos, have given us a visual feast! Whether it’s the thick jungles of Brazil, the death-filled air of the Somme, or the rolling hills of Devonshire, England, we are always hypnotized by what our eyes tell us.
And as for the tale itself…it was nice to sit in a darkened theater and be taken on the kind of journey that used to regularly adorn screens…the David Lean 35mm epic. Very few of those these days and Mr. Gray certainly has found the right subject. I dare anyone who reads this to tell me they had previously heard of Percy Fawcett, or his exploits. So enthralled by his story, I immediately went to the google-machine to find out more about this man. His was, indeed, a tale well worth telling in celluloid!
But maybe with a few additions and a few more subtractions. As with “Their Finest”, “The Lost City of Z” is not a bad film, just not really a great one either. But you be the judge, for, as ever, your mileage may vary.
Written on 5/8/2017