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Front Page - Friday, April 28, 2017

Finding a winner in ‘Lost City of Z’

 “Raiders of the Lost Ark” opens with Indiana Jones running away from jungle natives after stealing their idol. Imagine if the scene went like this:

Instead of darting out of the foliage at full speed, Dr. Jones and the natives emerge at a relaxed pace. After bidding his new friends goodbye, the famous archeologist then leaves to return to civilization.

Therein lies the difference between “Raiders,” an action-adventure film, and “The Lost City of Z” (pronounced “zed”), an adventure movie. By removing the action and injecting drama, the creators of “The Lost City” have made a film with the spirit of Indiana Jones but a different heart.

There’s another big difference: the main character is a real person – Percy Fawcett, a British explorer who made several attempts to find an ancient city in the Amazon.

Even though “The Lost City” lacks the high-spirited action of “Raiders,” it retains the same sense of wonder – of traveling to uncharted places and searching for the unknown.

The boy in me loves this stuff. But the grown-up in me appreciates the attention in “The Lost City” paid to character development, relationships and the exploration of relevant themes.

One of the significant themes writer and director James Gray, working off a 2009 book titled “The Lost City of Z,” explores is the quest to impart meaning to one’s life.

As the film begins, Fawcett is on the hunt not for a lost city but a medal. Although he’s been promoted to lieutenant in the Royal Artillery, he has yet to be decorated. Fawcett also hopes to restore the family name after his late father dragged it through mud with gambling and drink.

Gray gives Fawcett shape and substance before sending him into a jungle. On a hunt for a stag, Fawcett pulls his horse away from the others in the group and dashes into a thicket of trees. One of his companions shouts, “There’s no path that way!” In an efficient bit of character development, Fawcett then drops the animal with one shot.

Later, the Royal Geographic Society asks Fawcett to map a jungle area at the border of Brazil and Bolivia. Fawcett initially rejects the idea but comes around when they promise to honor him with a medal.

Another major theme Gray explores in “The Lost City” is the cost of achieving our dreams. The journey will take Fawcett away from his family for at least two years, during which his pregnant wife will give birth to their second child and their first child will begin walking and talking.

During the expedition, Fawcett finds pottery and inscriptions in stone deep in the jungle. He presumes these findings suggest the Amazon was once home to an advanced civilization.

Of course, the scientific community in England will have none of that. Upon Fawcett’s return, he’s ridiculed by his colleagues and is given a heartless embrace by his second son, who doesn’t know him. But hope – another theme – endures, and he finds a way to return to the jungle again and again.

“The Lost City” is a slow-moving but absorbing and satisfying film. Gray’s insightful script stays focused on the treasure Fawcett took with him on every journey – the love of his family – and the dramatic scenes carry a lot of weight. Behind the camera, Gray did superb work bringing the Amazon (Colombia, actually) to vibrant life on 35mm film.

I thought the cast was excellent, too. Actor Charlie Hunnam brings Fawcett to life with a grounded performance that never becomes theatrical. That’s not to say he doesn’t have moments of intense emoting – he does – but like the rest of the film, his work shuns the heightened reality of the typical Hollywood epic.

Sienna Miller also does nice work as Fawcett’s wife, Nina. Miller and Gray could have turned her into a nag, whining about her husband being gone for years at a time, but they made her a strong mother and spouse who raised four children alone and supported the decisions Fawcett made.

While the story does stray from historical fact (Nina finds a document that supports her husband’s proclamations, whereas Fawcett found the document in real life), it hits the bullseye on all the important moments. This gives the speculative nature of the end of the film a touch of veracity.

I chose to see “The Lost City” over several other films because I like what Amazon Studios is doing with it. Instead of adding the movie to its online library, it’s giving it a broad theatrical release first.

At a time when movie distributors and theater chains seem to be reserving the multiplexes for the latest blockbuster releases and letting middle-range movies like “The Lost City” fight it out on the art house circuit or sink in the ever-swelling tide of online content, Amazon is saying, “This movie deserves to be seen in a theater.”

They’re right; “The Lost City” is worthy of the theatrical experience. It’s visually and thematically expansive, and it’s as intimate and earnest as a classic movie. Gray and the people at Amazon who backed him might not have a mega-hit action adventure film on their hands, but they have certainly proven themselves to be raiders of what is becoming a lost art.

Three stars out of four