For a film about risk and death, “The Lost City of Z” is remarkably safe. The true story of British explorer Percy Fawcett, it’s a sprawling drama with plenty on its mind, but a clunky, conventional way of expressing it.
Charlie Hunnam is all wounded dignity as Percy, a soldier who has been “unfortunate in his choice of ancestors.” Hoping to improve his family’s situation, in 1906 he takes an assignment mapping a disputed border between Bolivia and Brazil.
The hellish journey would be enough to send most Europeans back across the Atlantic for good, but Percy hears rumors of a lost civilization in the area and finds pottery shards that might back up the claim. He plans his return almost as soon as he gets home, with assistance from loyal aides Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley) and Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson, unrecognizable behind a shaggy beard and haunted stare).
Writer/director James Gray’s script indicates that Percy becomes obsessed with the place he dubs “Z,” but Hunnam is so reserved, it never quite registers. This is part of a larger problem, as characters talk endlessly about ideas that could be conveyed through visuals, performances or a few lines of dialogue. Percy clearly wants to find the lost city, but he barely seems emotionally committed to anything. If Hunnam showed more passion, we could understand his dedication. Instead, Percy just decides to go back to South America a couple of times (he actually made seven trips).
Gray also pokes around the cultural issues involved in Percy’s search, bringing the movie to a halt so people can argue about things like racism, colonial hubris and gender inequality. The idea that “savages” could have built a complex ancient civilization is met with derision by Percy’s colleagues, leading to raucous debates and lectures that should have lasted half the time they take up.
Percy’s wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), is a smart, forward-thinking woman whose first scene involves complaining about her corset. Miller gives a nuanced performance, showing the charisma that Hunnam is forced to tamp down, and it’s unfortunate that she has so little to do. Nina worries a lot and gets angry at being stuck at home with the kids, who barely know their father. Her predicament is handled with a shouting match about sexism and not much else.
When “The Lost City of Z” stays focused on Percy’s Amazon journeys, it gets closer to its aspirations. You can’t have esoteric arguments when you’re vomiting blood and dodging native arrows, and Gray treats these segments as the frightening, fascinating adventures they obviously were. No matter how weirdly confident (and lucky) Percy is, he can’t ignore the perils all around him, and neither can Gray. Filming in 35mm, Gray and cinematographer Darius Khondji bring the beauty out of the danger, and vice versa.
Instead of getting sidetracked by big issues and domestic drama, Gray would have done well to just adapt the portions of David Grann’s 2009 book that had better cinematic potential. Including more of the story is an admirable goal, but not in a 140-minute feature. Put the jungle wandering on the big screen; put the narrative wandering in a TV series. Netflix, are you listening?
Read more of freelancer Loey Lockerby’s reviews at suchacritic.com.
‘The Lost City of Z’
Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, brief strong language and some nudity.