Dogged quest for Amazon ruins
his week I’m writing about two films based on real-life characters, one small and intimate, the other epic. The Lost City of Z tells the story of the little-known British explorer Percival Fawcett and his three journeys to the Amazon, starting in 1906.
American director James Gray, a classicist with a wonderful eye for all the potentials of cinema, has mostly made contemporary films till now ( Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own the Night), though his last film before this, The Immigrant, was set early in the 20th century, at about the same time that Fawcett was making his perilous journeys up the Amazon.
In 1906, the Royal Geographic Society is officially asked to chart the Amazon in order to settle a border dispute between Bolivia and Brazil; Britain is an interested party because of the rubber plantations located in the area. Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), an army major, accepts the assignment because he is going nowhere in the military; as one officer explains, “he is rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors”.
Fawcett leaves his pregnant wife, Nina (Sienna Miller) in England and, accompanied by his aide-de-camp Henry Costin (a bearded Robert Pattinson), sails for South America. On his arrival he’s advised to abort the mission but, with help from local guides, the Englishmen push deep into the unknown. They find more than they expected: pieces of pottery and other artefacts suggest to Fawcett the existence of a jungle city he calls Z, long lost and forgotten.
He returns to England, where his theory is ridiculed, but he and Costin raise the money to return to the Amazon, this time accompanied by portly businessman James Murray (Angus MacFadyen), whose injuries force the abandonment of the second mission at the vital moment — and World War I then intervenes.
Despite a relatively modest budget for a film that unfolds on such a vast canvas, Gray has created a very fine movie on the subject of ob- session. What makes the rational Fawcett return again and then again to this remote and very perilous part of the world, where the natives are violent and unpredictable and where the wildlife is decidedly unfriendly? Gray goes a long way towards answering this question in a key scene between Fawcett and Nina, whose feminist views make the stock role of the wife left behind far more interesting than is usual in this sort of movie.
Gray filmed on locations in Colombia (the original Brazilian locations have suffered from deforestation) and the scenes on the river and in the almost impenetrable jungle create a palpable sense of the dangers involved. The film, based on a book by David Grann, is not only an important reminder of the courage of this littleknown British adventurer, it’s also a very satisfying drama. Thanks to the performances of Hunnam, Pattinson, Miller and Tom Holland, who plays Fawcett’s eldest son, Jack, in the last part of the film, and the glorious photography of Darius Khondji, the search for this lost city is brought to the screen with distinction. Maud Lewis (1903-70) was a Canadian folk artist who spent all her life in a tiny village in Nova Scotia. From birth she suffered from rheumatoid arthritis yet affliction seems not to have af- fected her work and during a long career she created a vast number of paintings of cats, flowers, trees, houses and snowy winter landscapes. A few years after her death the National Film Board of Canada produced a documentary, Maud Lewis: A World without Shadows, directed by Diane Beaudry, that included black-andwhite footage of the artist in her home/studio. Two more documentaries followed, giving some indication of the artist’s popularity.
Maudie, an affectionate biography of Lewis, is a Canadian-Irish co-production directed by Dublin-born Aisling Walsh, who has been working in cinema and television in her native country since the early 1980s.
No matter how inspirational Maud’s story is, it could have been a gruelling cinema experience if not for a number of excellent choices, starting with the casting. Although Sally Hawkins doesn’t look a lot like the real Maud Lewis, her portrayal of the character, trapped in her stunted and twisted body, is remarkable (“I was born funny,” she says at one point). She’s generously supported by Ethan Hawke who is almost equally good as Maud’s uneducated, taciturn husband. Also extremely important to the success of the film is the location. The film mostly takes place in and around the smallest house you’ve seen, stuck on a scrubby, dusty back road Lost City of Z; Maudie, in the hamlet of Marshalltown, not far from the sea. Seeing the cramped conditions in which she lived and worked makes Maud’s achievements even more impressive. In fact, for financial reasons the filmmakers were forced to use a location in Newfoundland rather than Nova Scotia, but it all looks remarkably convincing and evocative.
The viewer is given no indication at the start of the film exactly when and where the story is taking place; from the vintage cars and the clothes people wear it seems to be in the 1930s, but soon we learn that vice-president Richard Nixon purchased one of Maud’s paintings, which would have been between 1953 and 1961. Walsh offers no overt sense of the passing of time, which some may find rather annoying — but on the other hand, this emphasises the timelessness of Maud’s isolated existence.
To begin with, according to Sherry White’s screenplay, Maud Dowley, after the deaths of her parents, lived with her brother Charles (Zachary Bennett), who had little patience with her and who eventually paid a spinster aunt, Ida (Gabrielle Rose), to care for her. Craving independence, Maud replied to an advertisement for a live-in housekeeper she found in the local village store. The ad was posted by Everett Lewis (Hawke), a gloomy handyman and seller of fish. Despite the fact that the house is so small, and there’s only one bedroom — and one bed — Maud agrees to stay, though Everett makes it clear that “round here there’s me, the dogs, the chickens — then you”. In time Maud wins over this surly character, and they marry. When she begins to paint, using whatever tools she can lay her hands on, Everett is not encouraging, but when a visitor from New York (Kari Matchett) expresses an interest in Maud’s work and is willing to pay for it, he changes his tune.
Walsh and White clearly felt the need to embellish the story, and you can understand why. Some of the incidents, and a major subplot, featured in the film don’t appear in Maud’s biographies. But they add to the portrait of a most unusual and tenacious woman.
Hawkins has never been better than she is here, and Hawke gives one of his most thoughtful performances. The few scenes of tenderness between these two are extraordinarily touching. Maudie is a very small film, but a most attractive one.
Charlie Hunnam and Tom Holland in The Ethan Hawke and Sally Hawkins in below