The Lost City of Z movie director: James Gray
The Lost City of Z movie cast: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller
The Lost City of Z movie rating: 2.5
Journey up the river, into the deep jungle, has rarely ended well (think Heart of Darkness, think corollary Apocalypse Now). Writer-director James Gray, adapting a book by David Grann, based on real-life soldier-explorer Percy Fawcett, imagines a kinder ending, a gentler world, and a nicer White man whose ideas sound jarringly closer to this side of the 20th century.
So earnest is Gray to establish clean motives for Fawcett that the fierce ambition for greatness that drives his early adventures is also shed along the way, for a general desire to discover something that would change mankind. In the process, the film’s early promise of a grand adventure in the traditional sense peters out over its long, 221-minute length. And for all its talk of having an “open mind” towards the natives, not influenced by the “bigotry of the Church”, its meagre, fleeting glimpses of the Amazon tribes don’t carry any new insights.
At the start, circa 1905, Gray appears to have a good thing going, with Hunnam, a blond, strikingly and traditionally good-looking actor who grows on you, hitting all the right notes with Fawcett. He is a young Major in the British Army, trying desperately to shed the ill-repute of his father, and fearing he would never make it to the inner circle no matter his accomplishments. The Royal Geographical Society plays on those insecurities by dangling him a carrot he can’t refuse: a chance to become the first explorer to map Bolivia, especially its border with Brazil where England’s profitable rubber plantations lie, thus earning him name, fame, a rank and social position. Fawcett’s wife Nina (he calls her Cheeki, played by Miller) knows better than to stop him, despite their young son and another along the way.
Fawcett ventures into the jungle with Costin (an almost unrecognisable Pattinson), a loyal fellow armyman with some history of the area behind him. As they set out, Gray and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Darius Khondji’s jungle is a living, breathing mystery, beating down on the men and their crew with its heat, humidity and undergrowth. The river preys on them, as do disease, hunger, and tribals who shoot unseen from the bushes. By the course of that first, successful trip, The Lost City of Z has run its breath of ambition, desire, danger, and the promise of the unknown. It is voiced best by the Indian slave who Fawcett takes along as a guide. He talks about a city of gold and maize that no one has seen, and whispers, “There is no escape from the jungle for you.”
By the time he is back in England, in a giant, disconcerting leap, Fawcett has developed ideas of the nobility of the natives, is convinced about the existence of an old civilisation deep in the Amazon jungles, and developed enough oratorial skills to sweep a roomful of old fogies at the RGS to abide by his soaring ambition, even while denouncing the Church and the very foundations of greatness on which rested the British Empire. Yes, he has also got some pieces of pottery as evidence and seen what seem like faces engraved into trees, but he doesn’t turn those shards in for scientific testing, for one. Fawcett calls his quest the search for a city called “Zed”, named thus for it will be “the last piece of the puzzle”.
From then on, the film, as it makes its way through two more adventures back into the jungles by Fawcett, his interaction with natives, a potentially dramatic encounter with a biologist who almost dooms his mission, as well as his virtuoso stint on the front in World War I, becomes more and more about Fawcett and less and less about the Amazon.
Hunnam doesn’t seem tortured enough, unless one counts the way he chews through his dialogues, and Miller seems too virtuous (the film’s feeble attempts at feminism through her seem most dishonest). Only Pattinson fares well, if only because The Lost City of Z shows us he can age beyond immortal vampires.