[Rating: Minor Rock Fist Up]
Explorers and trailblazers are a special breed. Masters of planning and self-sufficiency, these adventurers must often live on whatever they’ve brought with them, and when supplies fail, have to improvise using whatever their unforgiving environment has to offer. There’s a high risk/reward factor at play for these men and women, and while death is often the reward of failure, the promise of immortality awaits if successful. Names like Columbus, Shackleton, Hudson, and Hillary reverberate through the ages because of the courage, pluck, and vim of those willing to risk it all in the hope of a new discovery or triumph.
Yet as The Lost City of Z relates, there’s little correlation between courage and renown, and despite feats that would put a person in the conversation of history’s greatest explorers, failure is often the rule rather than exception.
The Lost City of Z follows the multi-decade exploits of Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a real-life British explorer who made several expeditions into the darkest corners of the Amazon in the 1900s, 10s, and 20s. When the film opens, Fawcett, a career soldier, is pulled off duty in Ireland and ordered to report to the Royal Geographic Society. He’s tasked with surveying and mapping the border between Brazil and Bolivia, and though initially disappointed with the assignment, Percy is encouraged by the promise of an improved social and professional standing if successful. The Amazon is, after all, a very dangerous place, and any person able to survive the wild beasts and natives of the region is likely to return as something of a hero. Percy’s wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), understands what the expedition could mean for her husband’s career, and consents to his multi-year absence after some mild objections.
Fawcett sets off in earnest for the jungle with a small team, which includes an aide-de-camp, Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), who seems to find some purpose in life as a result of the challenge. Likewise, Fawcett discovers something in himself during the expedition: as if this arduous trial is the grand culmination of a life built up to this opportunity. Where other men falter, Fawcett and Costin seem to only get stronger, and it is a quality that brings them closer together as the picture progresses.
Which is the first of a handful of problems The Lost City of Z has, as the relationship between Fawcett and Costin, or Percy and his wife, or of Percy Fawcett against the world (and/or himself?) are all far more interesting topics that writer-director James Gray sidesteps. Instead, the film follows Fawcett as he makes several return trips to the Amazon to gather evidence for what he believes to be a lost, vanished civilization in that region. Percy has to contend with the mocking disbelief of the scientific community, the consternation of his wife and family, and the physical toll each trip takes on his physical constitution. Any one of these narratives could have carried the picture, yet The Lost City of Z tries to tell all of them, and even throws in a little father-son drama between Percy and his son (Tom Holland), who resents his father’s commitment to the jungle rather than the family.
What’s more, as serviceable a job as Hunnam does as Percy, there’s a charisma absent from the performance that makes the whole thing feel a bit stale. This is the kind of lead role that Cary Elwes would have knocked out of the park fifteen or twenty years ago, as there’s a certain level of cocky British posturing, of impetuous elan that would have given the character a period-appropriate anchor in these events. Hunnam does fine work with the role of Percy, playing the guy as a subdued, thoughtful, serious man that may well be true to the actual historical figure. Yet for an adventure and exploration movie, a magnetic lead is crucial. (What would Lawrence of Arabia have been without O’Toole’s stiffest of upper lips, for example?)
Expeditions into the heart of the Amazonian bush are dangerous in 2017, and were practically suicide in the early twentieth century. Without a charismatic, swaggering lead to hook the audience, it’s hard to care much about the expeditions, especially since they compete with several other relationship B-plots that could have carried the picture themselves. Gray’s script and movie as a whole might have been better served if it had spent more time developing Percy Fawcett as the primary draw for the story, rather than the mystery of Z. What would drive a man to keep submitting themselves to starvation, dehydration, cannibalism, infection, etc., and what would compel those willing to follow him? As a film, this is the far more interesting story, and it’s one Gray and company seem only moderately interested in exploring.
That said, Pattinson does some of the best work of his career as the loyal and trustworthy companion of Fawcett, and stumbles through the picture with a tangible roughness and stench one can almost feel through the screen. As a production, The Lost City of Z features some exquisite work by Gray behind the camera, as the director brings the thick, imposing jungle to life with a magnificent yet deft touch. The picture even takes a detour about halfway through to drop into some of the hottest action of World War I, and while something of a distraction pacing-wise (at 140 minutes, the film could have probably done without this bit), it is a stunning portrayal of trench warfare.
Opening in wide release this week, The Lost City of Z is an interesting movie about a handful of fascinating people who all play second fiddle to an A-plot that only partially comes together. Intriguing nonetheless, and gorgeous to look at as it winds through the heart of the jungle, it’s worth a look if only to marvel at what might have been.