James Gray is a genius. He must be. Everyone says so. Since sloping onto the arthouse scene in 1995 with the comically melancholy Russian Jewish shoegazing hitman drama Little Odessa and earning a Silver Bear at that year’s Venice Film Festival, he’s been a darling of the critics and a gift to insomniacs everywhere, the only reason to stay awake in his films being the often awful performances he’s coaxed from frequent collaborator Joaquin Phoenix in mournful trudges like The Yards, We Own The Night and The Immigrant.

Joaquin isn’t in The Lost City Of Z.

A true-life tale of derring-do with all the derring-do removed, Gray’s adaptation of David Grann’s popular biography The Lost City Of Z traces the life of British officer, gentleman explorer and moustache enthusiast Percy Fawcett from his lacklustre career with His Majesty’s Forces in rural Ireland to the toast of the British Empire as the adventurer who mapped the Amazon, his vocation as explorer rudely interrupted by the eruption of the Great War before returning to his beloved jungle in his late-50s and mysteriously disappearing without trace while searching for the ruins of a grand Mesoamerican civilisation he was convinced was out there in the depths of the primordial rainforest.

A swashbuckling enigma, the man and his exploits having served as the inspiration for generations of boys own adventures from H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World to more recently Indiana Jones and the Zeppelin-piloting baddie in Up, it’s about time Fawcett got his own film. Both a symbol and product of Empire, Fawcett was something of a Don Quixote-figure, tilting at Establishment windmills even as he exemplified a particular brand of Englishman and of Empire.

An early conservationist who fought to end the slavery of indigenous peoples of South America, who fought for their equality, Fawcett was an anachronism, the last, if you like, of the Great White Hunters, who believed in living in harmony with the indigenous peoples and the jungle, an old-fashioned hero venturing into the Heart of Darkness on foot and going native even as he was being overtaken and outclassed by the 20th century, by the Americans and their aeroplanes and dirigibles, expeditions funded by Hearst and his newspapers, the birth of celebrity culture, the industrialisation of discovery.

Yet Gray’s film is grey, bland, squandering the talents of cinematographer Darius Khondji, DARIUS F**KING KHONDJI, the jungle scenes virtually indistinguishable from those set in Cork, even a muddy midsection set in the Somme looking like it could have been shot in Richmond Park. Despite grueling river journeys, encounters with cannibals and piranha attacks, it’s an epic in search of the epic, lacking the sense of adventure of an Indiana Jones movie, the sense of grandeur of a David Lean, the magical insanity of Apocalypse Now or Aquirre, Wrath Of God or Fitzcarraldo, which it references in a wonderfully surreal scene where Fawcett and companion stumble upon an opera company deep in the jungle, performing for a despotic German rubber plantation owner.

Spectacularly miscasting the buff Charlie Hunnam as the aging Fawcett, who despite six years of Sons Of Anarchy will always be the kid who splaffed in Aidan Gillen’s face while on the receiving end of a thorough rimming, the film lacks romance and thrills, never getting to grips with Fawcett’s magnificent obsession, Hunnam stiff, practically filmed in Supermarionation, never making us feel the lure of the jungle, Fawcett’s search for glory, for redemption, for transcendence, The Lost City Of Z suggesting that Fawcett’s decades in the jungle may just be a way of escaping his turboshrew wife (Sienna Miller) while Robert Pattinson and Tom Holland are wasted in the roles of Fawcett’s beardy aide de camp and son respectively, only Angus Macfadyen’s fellow cowardly explorer and rival making much of an impact.

An existentialist jungle adventure for people who aren’t quite sure of the meaning of the word existentialist, The Lost City Of Z, like it’s protagonist, fails to ever find it’s way.


Movie Review: The Lost City Of Z
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