Adventure, Charlie Hunnam, Drama, Explorer, Hidden civilisation, Historical drama, James Gray, Perceval Fawcett, Review, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, South America, Thriller, Tom Holland, True story
D: James Gray / 141m
Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland, Edward Ashley, Angus Macfadyen, Ian McDiarmid, Harry Melling, Franco Nero
A throwback to the kind of big budget adventure stories made in the Seventies and Eighties, with location filming designed to heighten the events shown, The Lost City of Z concerns the efforts of military man turned explorer Perceval “Percy” Fawcett (Hunnam) to find a city he believes is hidden somewhere in the Amazonian jungle. Covering the years between 1905 and 1925, the movie introduces us to Fawcett the military man while he’s posted to Ireland, and finding it difficult to advance through the ranks thanks to what a senior officer refers to as, “an unfortunate choice in ancestors”. Good fortune arrives in the form of a secondment to the Royal Geographical Society, where he is asked to map an area of jungle on the Brazil-Bolivia border.
Fawcett accepts the commission, and finds himself in the company of fellow military men Henry Costin (Pattinson) and Arthur Manley (Ashley). While they carry out their task, Fawcett finds what he believes is evidence of an advanced civilisation that once existed within the jungle but which has remained, until now, undiscovered. When he returns to England, and presents his findings to the RGS, they and he are ridiculed, and the idea that the indigenous tribes are anything but “savages” is dismissed. Fawcett does, however, find an ally in RGS member James Murray (Macfadyen), who agrees to fund a further expedition in search of what Fawcett is calling “the lost city of Z”. And so in 1911, Fawcett, accompanied again by Costin and Manley, and with Murray in tow, returns to the Bolivian jungle.
The expedition, however, suffers a series of setbacks, from the loss of equipment to Murray’s inability to deal with the harsh, uncompromising environment. Forced to turn back despite Fawcett’s conviction that they are close to finding the lost city, the trio return home just as war in Europe breaks out. They find themselves fighting together in France, and during a push across the Somme in 1916, Fawcett falls victim to a chlorine gas attack and is temporarily blinded. Invalided out of the Army, Fawcett believes his exploring days are now behind him. That is, until his son, Jack (Holland), convinces him that they should travel together to Bolivia, and make one more effort to find the lost city. And so, in 1925, the pair set off into the jungle in an effort to prove once and for all that the fabled city and its ancient civilisation did exist.
Based on the book The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon (2009) by David Grann, James Gray’s adaptation is sincere, meticulously researched, beautifully shot by Darius Khondji, engaging on a Boys’ Own adventure level, and yet, despite everyone’s best efforts, not as interesting to watch as it should be. The tale of Fawcett’s obsession should be strong, compelling stuff, but thanks to Gray’s adaptation covering such a long period of time, the movie suffers from being episodic, and as a result, feels hesitant in some scenes and overly confident in others. Gray handles the material well, but the narrative’s stop-start approach – something that Gray in both roles as screenwriter and director fails to find a solution for – means that it’s always difficult for the viewer to maintain interest in a story that, ultimately, isn’t going to lead anywhere.
If you already know the outcome of Fawcett’s third expedition to the Bolivian jungle, then this movie won’t necessarily be of interest. Having to wade through a succession of failures before this point, the movie does its best to make each disappointment and setback in Fawcett’s life part of a never-give-up, never-say-die attitude that drives the man forward, but the key word in Grann’s title – “obsession” – never really applies, and that’s partly due to Gray’s script, which never portrays Fawcett as passionate in his beliefs. It’s also due to Hunnam’s less-than-charismatic performance, one that will have viewers wondering why Costin and Manley stick with Fawcett for so long, and how he managed to attract backers for his second and third expeditions. Watching the movie, it gives the impression that the idea of a hidden civilisation in the Bolivian jungle is more enticing than the idea of Fawcett being the man to lead the search.
The expeditions themselves lack any tension, even when Fawcett and his companions encounter a tribe of cannibals, and though Gray shows an impressive capacity for framing the jungle scenes in such a way that they feel other-worldly, these sections of the movie go by without making as much of an impact as Gray was no doubt aiming for. There are also signposted moments that are straight out of Predictable Storytelling 101, such as when Fawcett holds a book up in front of his face and an arrow pierces it, stopping just inches away from hitting him. Or the moment where Murray demands an apology from Fawcett, and he agrees to do so, and then turns and apologises to Costin and Manley instead.
Also problematical is Fawcett’s relationship with his wife, Nina (Miller). She accepts his going to Bolivia in 1906, and is supportive of the trip. But when it comes time for the 1911 trip, Nina wants to go with him, and the pair have an awkward argument where Fawcett plays down her physical ability to make the journey there and back, and she argues that she has endured childbirth (twice by now) and if she can weather that particular experience then the jungle shouldn’t be any worse. Again, it’s an awkward exchange that feels out-of-place – and designed to give Miller something to do other than play the otherwise doting wife – and feels even more out-of-place when their oldest son, Jack, suggests a third trip and she agrees without so much as a murmur. Perhaps Gray felt the need to include a slice of proto-feminism amongst all the testosterone flying around, but if so, it’s not something that works.
By the time Fawcett and his eldest son get to Bolivia, viewers will probably be wondering how this is all going to pan out. Those in the know will find Gray’s choice of endings (technically, there are three) unlikely, overly poignant, and at odds with the tone of the movie thus far. That said, Gray does give Miller another chance to stand out from the overwhelmingly male cast, and while wish fulfilment is the order of the day, it sits uncomfortably with what we know of Fawcett and that last trip.
Overall, The Lost City of Z is a sterile drama that never hits any emotional highs and struggles to provide the audience with a sense of just how important Fawcett’s search for a hidden civilisation really was back in the Georgian era (or even if it was). There’s the usual degree of sexism sitting alongside the kind of blinkered attitudes that seem to define the period, and though Gray keeps the movie interesting on a visual level, with spectacular scenery and beautifully composed individual shots aplenty, it’s on a dramatic level that the movie fails to gain traction, becoming a succession of scenes that aim for a classic adventure feel, but which lack the depth to elevate it to such lofty heights. An adventure then, but one that offers scant reward for both its characters’ efforts, and the audience’s.
Rating: 6/10 – not as compelling or as rich in detail as viewers will need in order to gain maximum enjoyment from it, The Lost City of Z wastes its potential by making Fawcett’s “obsession” a strictly pedestrian affair; Gray delivers on the production side but can’t seem to work his magic on his own script or the cast, leaving the movie feeling like it’s always about to step up a gear while remaining steadfastly in neutral.