Dogged quest for Ama­zon ru­ins

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

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

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