Film reviews: The Lost City of Z | Mad To Be Normal | All This Panic | Age of Shadows | Eyes of My Mother

Charlie Hunnam as Percival Fawcett in The Lost City of Z
Charlie Hunnam as Percival Fawcett in The Lost City of Z
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James Gray avoids many of the genre clichés in his biopic of a doomed explorer in The Lost City of Z, while All This Panic sweetly charts the growing pains of a group of Brooklyn girls

The Lost City of Z (15) ****

Mad To Be Normal (15) **

All This Panic (15) ****

Age of Shadows (15) ****

Eyes of My Mother (15) ***

As a director, James Gray is best known for making studiously crafted New York crime dramas that hark back to the 1970s in their mood if not their settings. For his latest film, The Lost City of Z, he’s stepped out of that comfort zone to apply his classical sensibility to the story of Percy Fawcett, an early 20th Century British explorer who disappeared without trace in the Amazon while searching for evidence that the indigenous peoples of the Americas were as socially advanced as their British and European counterparts.

Starring Charlie Hunnam as Fawcett, the film spans 20 years in his life and covers the three major expeditions he undertook to the Amazon, but it also dedicates a lot of time to his domestic situation, and particularly his relationship with his proto-feminist wife Nina (Sienna Miller), whose strong presence in the film highlights the short shrift women usually get in such tales.

Gray’s approach is fascinating, too, in the subtle way his use of old-school film grammar comments upon cinema’s historically problematic approach to colonialism: in taking care not to exoticise the landscape or the indigenous people who live there (certainly not in the way a movie like this might once have done), the film reinforces Fawcett’s own, more enlightened, world view.

The downside for some will be the way this approach slows the movie down. But while it’s not a virtuosic piece of revisionist cinema in the manner of The Revenant, there’s real artistry on screen and a lot to unpack thematically, something actually aided by the pacing, which gives Gray and his cast – which includes Robert Pattinson as Fawcett’s regular companion and Tom Holland as his grown-up son – the time to create fully rounded characters. Hunnam in particular has never been this good on the big screen. Despite his matinee idol good looks he convincingly plays Fawcett as a flawed man driven at first by his lack of social mobility, but eventually by his hardening antipathy towards a society that seeks to rank and undermine anyone it doesn’t understand.

David Tennant’s curious inability land films that match the prestige of his television and theatre work continues with RD Laing biopic Mad to be Normal. Cast as the controversial Scottish psychotherapist whose establishment-challenging treatment of mental illness made him a counter-culture celebrity in the 1960s, this may be a dream role (Tennant certainly gives it his all), but the film around him just isn’t very good. Picking up his story after finding fame with the publication of his landmark book The Divided Self, the film proceeds to explore whether Laing’s dedication to the patients he lived amongst at his Kingsley Hall clinic in London was born out of a desire to fix himself or his charges. What emerges is a rather dreary portrait of a contradictory maverick whose advocacy of compassion didn’t extend to his own estranged children.

Writer/director Robert Mullan plays fast and loose with the truth in some major ways, mostly in failed bids to give the rather shapeless story some emotional heft. Similarly Elisabeth Moss – cast as a student admirer turned girlfriend – feels like more of an emotive narrative; her potential victim status amid the (at one-point literal) moon-howlers dubiously exploited for dramatic tension. Gabriel Byrne and Michael Gambon provide starry support, but the TV movie scope ensures most of the subplots fall by the wayside, much like the film itself, which ends unexpectedly and unsatisfactorily in the middle of a scene.

Following a group of teenage girls in Brooklyn over a three-year period, All This Panic offers a wonderfully witty and wise documentary portrait of its subjects as they reckon with the intense transition from life in their mid-teens to life as legal adults. Shot in artful close-ups by photographer-turned-director Jenny Gage, what’s remarkable here is how raw and vulnerable and funny and honest the girls are – and how much empathy the film generates for them as they grapple with various issues related to their sexuality, their families and their futures. It never feels exploitative, just nurturing. By the end you’ll just want to give them a big hug and tell them things are going to be alright.

Director Kim Jee-woon is known as a bit of a genre-hopper in his native South Korea, turning his hand to horror (A Tale of Two Sisters), gangster films (A Bittersweet Life) and even westerns (The Good, The Bad and the Weird). Now he’s returned with Age of Shadows, a period espionage drama set during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1920s. Revolving around a morally conflicted police captain (Song Kang-ho) charged with infiltrating the Korean resistance, the convoluted story takes a while to get to grips with, but once the beautifully orchestrated action kicks in, it’s frequently dazzling – and fairly extreme.

There’s more extremity in art-horror movie The Eyes of My Mother, a twisted portrait of a 1950s American family gone very wrong. Shot in stark black-and-white, debut director Nicholas Pesce’s sick little flick follows Francesca (Kika Magalhaes), a lonely woman whose emotional life has been stunted by childhood encounters with rogue surgical procedures, a serial killer and an uncommunicative father. Zeroing in on her misguided efforts to re-engage with the outside world, the proceeding film doesn’t hang together in entirely satisfying ways, but its odd camera angles, minimal dialogue and gory compositions do build towards a chilly exploration of the detrimental effects of isolationism that feels strangely timely.