Movie reviews: The Lost City Of Z portrays early 20th century British empire in warts and all

A man encounters the gloom of the jungle in The Lost City Of Z while a young mother faces endless suffering in Brimstone

Two excellent films this week address things hidden in dark crevices - one is a true story of a man driven to find a lost civilisation in the gloom of the jungle, another is about a mother whose secret past comes roaring back, with gruesome consequences.

Have you ever watched a period drama and noticed it suffered from HV syndrome? 

HV, or Historical Villainy, is entertainment that exploits and exaggerates the racist, sexist and classist social attitudes of the past, while excusing itself with a "but we are so different now" pat on the back, as if racism, sexism and class barriers had disappeared along with petticoats and steam trains. 

The lushly depicted and haunting biopic The Lost City Of Z (PG13, 140 minutes, opens tomorrow, 4/5 stars) is that rare period piece that avoids HV laziness - the past is presented, warts and all, and no character is a hero or villain through simple social classification. 

Guy Pearce stars as the Reverend in Brimstone and Charlie Hunnam (far left) and Tom Holland in The Lost City Of Z. PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

Colonel Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is a soldier at the turn of the 20th century, a cog in the machine that is the British Empire. His military career is at a standstill because of a stain on his family name. 

The film is based on David Grann's 2009 best-selling biography. Fawcett made several gruelling expeditions during which he would be away for years at a time, his children raised by his iron-willed wife, Nina (Sienna Miller). 

Writer-director James Gray, who helmed 2013's The Immigrant, a drama also set in the early 20th century, takes the true story of Fawcett's trips into the Amazon region as a way to reveal the minds of the men who ran the empire as it actually was: a highly profitable corporation. 

This portrait of a man obsessed with finding a city lost to time is followed chronologically, from his first expedition to his last, with an interlude in World War I. 

Gray switches focus from intimate to big picture with boldness, playing with juxtapositions. In one scene, Fawcett and his aide Henry (Robert Pattinson) are enduring disease, flesh-eating fish and arrows fired by tribespeople on the Rio Verde; in the next, they are back home, in the august rooms of the Royal Geographical Society. 

Fawcett, whose jungle adventures were followed by millions in serialised newspaper articles, is part of the ruling class, but also outside of it and not just because of his tainted family name. Unlike Englishmen of his period, he saw tribespeople as well-adapted, rather than primitive.

Gray avoids depicting tribespeople as saintly innocents (an easy thing to do, given the carnage of the World War waged by "civilised" nations), nor are the natives blood-thirsty cannibals. 

The cinematography, from the celebrated Darius Khondji - who was behind the crime thriller Seven (1995) and Woody Allen works such as Midnight In Paris (2011) and Magic In The Moonlight (2014) - is a feast of contrasting textures of light and dark, suffocating Amazon and chilly London.

Guy Pearce stars as the Reverend in Brimstone (above) and Charlie Hunnam and Tom Holland in The Lost City Of Z. PHOTO: CATHAY-KERIS FILMS

Gray is too smart to dwell on images of the jungle as a green hell - it's tired territory and he knows it. But in Brimstone (R21, 149 minutes, opens tomorrow, 4/5 stars), hell comes to a nice quiet town in the old West. 

Liz (Dakota Fanning) is a young mother on a farm, just like any other, until the Reverend (Guy Pearce) comes to town. And in the manner of the thunderous Old Testament warnings the preacher rains down on his flock, terrible Biblical punishments are visited on Liz. 

There are Italian westerns, Australian westerns and even Korean westerns. Writer-director Martin Koolhoven from the Netherlands thinks it's time we had a Dutch western. Tonally, it means very bloody deaths, operatic themes of sin and punishment, all with a tinge of the supernatural. 

Reviews of this film have been polarised: Some hate it for its nihilism, violence and endless suffering of victim-heroine Liz; others love it for the same reasons.

This reviewer falls into the latter camp, mainly because Koolhoven invests the work with such style, one that blends the grand idea of divine retribution from Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider (1985) with the noir grimness of HBO's Deadwood (2004-2006), to make something all his own.  

Stories like this will not work without a strong villain and in the Reverend, Koolhoven has crafted a beauty of a screen monster, brought to terrifying life by Pearce, who steals the movie.

Two actors from HBO's Game Of Thrones appear in supporting roles. Kit Harington (Jon Snow) is a gunslinger and Carice van Houten (the Red Priestess) is the Reverend's wife. 

Gifted(PG13, 101 minutes, opens tomorrow, 3/5 stars) is a drama about a kid genius and how many of those have we seen? 

It has its hackneyed moments - mathematics prodigy Mary (Mckenna Grace) is not just smart, she's adorably wise beyond her years and her godmother is a wise, earthy black woman (Octavia Spencer, playing her umpteenth wise, earthy black woman role) - but it is saved by director Marc Webb's eye for character detail, backed by strong performances from Chris Evans (playing her guardian, Frank) and comedienne Jenny Slate as her teacher, Bonnie.

Webb (500 Days Of Summer, 2009), who was exiled to television after helming the underperforming The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014), knows how to let a joke land lightly and how to draw out an emotional moment.  As long as people pay to watch family dramas, he has a movie career outside the Marvel universe.

Going In Style(NC16, 96 minutes, opens tomorrow, 1.5/5 stars) is a remake of a 1979 comedy that tries to make the idea of old men pulling off a bank heist relevant to current times. 

This means economic justification for the crime - and lots of it. 

For a story about geriatrics gone wild (played with affable crustiness by Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and Alan Arkin), this work is very tame indeed.

The movie bends over backwards to explain why bank robbery might be an option for the elderly, lest viewers are turned off by such wanton criminality. Hint: It's the economy and lack of socialised medical care.

To make the old guys even cuter, there is an awkward romance sub-plot featuring 1960s star Ann-Margret playing - and one wishes director Zach Braff were joking - a sex bomb.

In the hands of Braff, best known for playing a goofball on the sitcom Scrubs (2001-2010), this is a humour-free and patronising foray into a world of park benches, bocce ball, hospital rooms, bingo halls and senior citizen coupling.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 19, 2017, with the headline 'Hell in different forms'. Print Edition | Subscribe