Directed by: James Gray
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland
Adventure is the most wistful of genres, now that globalization has closed off just about every frontier on Earth. But “The Lost City of Z,” James Gray’s (“We Own the Night”) fictionalization of British Colonel Percy Fawcett’s expeditions into the Amazon in the early 20th century, doesn’t make any lofty promises to the viewer, so instead of feeling wistful, it feels exciting, just as an adventure should. It’s not perfect—as a story, the film sometimes struggles to stay focused and believable—but as an exploration of the things that drive men to great adventure and sacrifice, it’s compelling and quixotic and ultimately, surprisingly, poignant.
Charlie Hunnam stars as Percy Fawcett in “The Lost City of Z.” (Courtesy photos)
At the film’s start, Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam, “Pacific Rim”) is just an unaccomplished soldier stationed in Ireland, going nowhere fast, hoping to see action so that he can bring some honor to his name and support his wife Nina (Sienna Miller, “Foxcatcher”) and son Jack (Tom Holland, “The Impossible”). That chance comes when the Royal Geographical Society asks Percy to lead an expedition into the Amazon to draw political maps of the area. Percy accepts the mission, taking with him an aide, Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson, “Twilight”).
In the rainforest, Percy hears talk of a lost city nearby, a city that may predate British civilization. Instantly captivated by the rumor, Percy begins to dream of this city, naming it Z, and before long he’s determined to find it, no matter what. Even after the failure of a second expedition and the onset of World War I, which forces Percy into battle, nothing can quell his desire to find Z. Eventually, he sets off on a fateful third expedition, now accompanied by Jack, who has grown up and shares his father’s enthusiasm. Together, the two Fawcett men search for Z, traveling deeper into the jungle than any European has gone before.
Sienna Miller in “The Lost City of Z.”
What begins as a straightforward biopic blossoms over the film’s relatively quick 141 minutes into something far grander. As Fawcett gives himself over to his quest and allows it to consume his family, the story takes on a layer of genuine introspection. Percy repeatedly asks himself if it’s fair for him to keep leaving, forcing Nina to raise their children alone for years at a time, forcing his children to grow up without seeing their father. At first he is resolute, but by the film’s end, his once uncompromising desire for the unknown has partially given way to the joy of fatherhood. It’s not an ending with tangible closure, but it’s enough to make him whole.
Understated performances keep this conclusion from being the treacly moral it could have been. Hunnam, an able (if not exceptional) lead, aptly conveys the slow build of Fawcett’s obsession. Percy is more family man than madman, traveling to the ends of the earth not so much for glory as for the sake of his family’s well-being. Sienna Miller and Tom Holland, meanwhile, both elevate their characters above the boring trope of the hero’s family just sitting at home biting their nails. Miller makes it clear that Nina possesses just as much agency as her husband within their household. She is supportive, but not demure; able, but not impervious. Holland, for his part, does an excellent job portraying a son dealing with growing pains and trying to mature beyond them. His transformation is subtle, but by the film’s climax, it’s clear that he’s taken after his father.
However, for all that this film, and especially its end, leaves me in awe at its grandeur, it’s also frustrating that more care wasn’t put into its foundations. The film falls short whenever it attempts to mimic similar movies, which Gray frequently does. He tries to live up to the Platonic ideals of period pieces and epics and biopics, but just ends up with uninspired dialogue, unoriginal (though pretty) camerawork, and a story structure that includes many extraneous details of Fawcett’s career. The thought-provoking editing choices and surreal design touches and heartfelt final act are all admirable, but I can’t help thinking an opportunity has been missed. “The Lost City of Z” could have been a great film, but instead, like any obsessive quest, it will be meaningful only to those who share a passion for its object.
Danny Eisenberg, a Bromfield graduate,
lives and works in Denver.