The Lost City of Z — 8/10

THE LOST CITY OF Z (2017, James Gray)

“I knew your father.”

“I didn’t.”

That simple exchange very early in this vast behemoth of a drama spells out a lot without saying much at all. Major Fawcett suffers from a form of social blacklisting because his father was a drunk and a gambling addict. (One aristocrat tells another that Fawcett “had a poor choice of ancestors”). Everything he’s about to do for the rest of his life begins with a quest to freshen the reputation of his family name — yet he proclaims that he didn’t even know his father. That is to say, what problem is it of Fawcett’s that his father was a fuck-up? They’re blood-related, but Percy is living his own life. Unfortunately, we’re blamed for things out of our control. All we can do is take it back.

In a decades-spanning arc, Fawcett goes from a guy with tragic flaws — hubris, arrogance, selfishness — to a man with an undying love for family, for duty, and a respect for humanity that is unmatched among on-screen British war heroes since perhaps Colonel Candy in Powell/Pressburger’s THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP. Hunnam plays Fawcett with steely resolve, not much humor, and a gravity that really nails the scene where he refuses to apologize. Gray’s camera dwarfs Hunnam and the rest of the cast in nature, but doesn’t reduce them — his classical framing and storytelling reminds one of what John Ford did in HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY. And it always helps to have Darius Khondji behind the lens.

Juicy as melodrama, this epic definitely feels like the book adaptation that it is — it’s novelistic where many films would narrow their scope to one or two of the APOCALYPSE NOW-ish trips up the river — but the pace never lags thanks to a detailed script by Gray himself. It provides just enough info for us to ask more questions, but refuses to preach very often. The best moments are gestures, not words. By the time one character tells another that, essentially, an ordinary life isn’t worth living, and the pursuit of novel and potentially futile adventure is more fulfilling than anything else, you believe it. Not because of any salesmanship, but because we’ve been on the journey too.

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