Percival Fawcett - intrepid explorer, whose exploits into charting the Amazon jungle in search of a mystical ancient civilization captivated the world and inspired a generation of adventure writers - would probably fall asleep during his own dour, flaccid biopic. Now, this isn't to say the only way to cinematically interpret Fawcett's life would be to whip-crack into full-blown Indiana Jones (though a film this allergic to fun could do far worse than shallow, Romancing the Stone mimesis). Instead, director James Gray strives to tap into Fawcett's mythos and mystique with the lyrical, abstract profundity of a Terrence Malick or Werner Herzog (indeed, his telling is irreconcilably indebted to Herzog's own parable of jungle madness, Fitzcarraldo). Sadly, he's too clumsy a director to commit to the kooky poetry of his thematic earmarks. Instead, his lolling sequences of Fawcett's crew wandering through the jungle or circumnavigating stuffy British Geographical Society politics - amazingly, equally drab and aimless - at times pleasantly hypnotic, but threaten to turn proceedings into The Lost City of ZZZzzzzzz.
Fawcett's memoirs tell of encounters with 60 foot snakes, deadly spiders, and enough peril and adventure to galvanize Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write The Lost World. These tales may have been tall (who's to say? are YOU going to forage through the jungle to fact check?), but it's a rare exercise in cinema purposefully downplaying the fun factor of its source material. The film starts promisingly: after an effectively squirmy opening with Fawcett failing to advance through the ranks of claustrophobic military culture in rural Ireland thanks to disgraced parentage, Gray bequeaths us a fun Ian McDarmid cameo as the evil Emperor of Geography, whose ominous monologue hypes the exotic perils of the jungle, stopping just shy of him purring "Goooood. Goooooood!" So far so good (gooooood!). But, after a thrilling (not) foray into the fine details of cartography, we finally follow Fawcett into the jungle. And wait. And walk. And wait. And cough. And fidget. And try not to check our phones, but my goodness, is that the time? But don't worry: you've two hours of more of the same awaiting you.
(I could tell, as a Canadian viewer, that my crowing this triumphantly at hearing the titular legend correctly[!] pronounced as 'Zed' rather than the customary big-screen 'Zee,' was a sign of how dire the cinematic experience was here )
One brief sequence, where Fawcett's raft and crew are besieged by indigenous arrows, only to meet a bloody end by looming piranhas, plays as a lively prelude to more thrilling adventures to come. Instead, it's the activity high point, an uneasily early climax paving the way to two thirds of increasingly diminishing content. There's no facts, literature, or even conjecture to establish even the skeleton of a mythology enough to share Fawcett's burning desire to unearth the titular lost civilization, apart from a few nonchalant shards of pottery, quickly whisked away from. Instead, we're reminded that the film shares a production team with 12 Years a Slave, and is thereby a Film With an Important Social Message. Behold: lengthy, awkward, anachronistic shoehorned-in diatribes shooting for feminism and anti-colonial racial equality instead playing as Hallmark pandering, patronizing asides of white saviourism. Think of Brad Pitt's uncomfortably didactic, self-congratulatory monologue in 12 Years a Slave. Now imagine sinking into a full 30 minutes of it, in a film that really isn't an organic platform for filmic slacktivism du jour. Yeah, I saw you checking your watch there - don't even pretend.
Even such a feeble ebb of a film could have coughed up some embers with an appropriately charismatic, magnetic lead. Unfortunately, Charlie Hunnam is effectively the antithesis of any such qualities. If his cross between snoozy murmuring, overcooked pontificating, and absentminded smugness were meant to play as enigmatic, he clearly dropped out of Mumblecore college too early to find a balance skewing anything close to watchable. If anything, Robert Pattinson appears to be practically bursting at the seams to chew scenery as eccentric comic relief with deranged relish - so, naturally, after an encouragingly wild-eyed introduction, he's rendered effectively mute by Gray, his performance as much of a dud as his surroundings. Sienna Miller is similarly too swamped by the script's quicksand of 'frowny, long-suffering wife with absentee husband' cliché to cough up anything resembling a spark of humanity to grab onto. So we're left with Tom Holland, funnelling every ounce of sprightly energy, charisma, and irresistible earnestness into Fawcett's son-with-prodigal-father, heralding the film's only genuine character arc. Try as he might, he's barely in it. It isn't enough.
Gray's film is not entirely without minor blips of enjoyment: it's well-shot, and makes good use of the beautiful Amazonian scenery (even if it is all dulled by a frustrating grey filter - there's really no need to live up to your namesake literally, James). Add the serene, soothingly ethereal score of Christopher Spelman, and many of Fawcett's jungle walks attain a pleasantly elegiac peacefulness, like a meditative nature walk. It's just a shame that this is the extent of the film's ambitions, as we otherwise see next to nothing of the excitement, mystery, or peril that made the jungle so obsessively captivating for Fawcett, instead making each jungle reprise, instead of bustling with possibility, at most muster a murmur of placid indifference. The Lost City of Z may be benignly, mildly engaging, but, remains overall, like Fawcett, a promising curiosity fated to be buried in the annals of cinema history. So, if that feat of metatextual anticlimax was Gray's aim, he accomplished it masterfully - the only such instance of mastery throughout. Oh - are you still awake? You're doing better than me. Yawn.
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