James Gray’s real-life story depicts a British adventurer in the Amazon who finds hidden civilizations, far-flung imperialism and the possibility of a city made of gold
The Lost City of Z
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller
Directed by: James Gray
Rating: 3½ stars out of 5
Running time: 141 minutes
By Jay Stone
An old-fashioned rousing adventure, with all the old-fashioned rousing adventure stuff — feckless explorers, dangerous rivers, cannibals shooting deadly arrows, and even (for Werner Herzog adherents) an opera being performed in the lush, unknowable jungle — none of that is what leaps to mind when you skip off to a James Gray movie.
Gray (to construct a second cultural stereotype) is the director of gritty films set in a different jungle, the urban hopelessness of New York City, where corrupt contractors (The Yards) or Russian hitmen (We Own The Night) or pitiless nightclub owners (The Immigrant) hold sway. There are cannibals here, all right, but they wear nicer suits.
So it’s a surprise, and mostly a pleasant one, to see Gray’s newest movie, The Lost City of Z, about a real-life character from the early 1900s who leaves the privileged bigotry of British aristocracy — whose members believe in taming the savages of whatever unfortunate country has been colonialized most recently — to head down the Amazon. There he discovers a different world — the river and the opera and all that — even as he finds the most valuable of an explorer’s tools, an obsession. Percy Fawcett is after a legendary city of gold. Some call it El Dorado. He calls it the lost city of Z (pronounced zed, in the manner of Brits, Canadians, and the guy who ran the pawn shop in Pulp Fiction.)
Fawcett (1867-1925) is a real-life character whose story was told in a bestseller by David Grann. He’s something of an Indiana Jones with a stiff upper lip, except in this telling, the issues of racism, courage and the price a family man pays for his curiosity make it a far more serious and richer undertaking. It’s not half as funny, however.
We meet Fawcett in 1905 as a British soldier in Northern Ireland. He yearns for battle, but he’s something of an outsider — this is, after all, a James Gray film — and there’s something about a reprobate father (drink, gambling) that keep him from full membership in the club. “He’s been rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors,” someone says.
Nonetheless, Fawcett is picked by the Royal Geographical Society — depicted here as a sort of John Birch Society with a monocle — to head to South America and help mediate a dispute between Brazil and Bolivia. If Fawcett can accurately map the national boundaries, he’ll head of an inconvenient war that would disrupt the lucrative rubber trade. Later, a rubber baron who keeps slave workers tells Fawcett, “I will help you because you will make sure nothing will change.” Nor, come to think of it, has it, much.
Fawcett is played by Charles Hunnam with a touch of the ambiguous taste for violence he brings to his role as a motorcycle gang leader in Sons of Anarchy. He’s a decent, brave, impatient and — to his family anyway — distant kind of hero who is nonetheless open to the revolutionary sights of “Amazonia.” Accompanied by his friend Henry Costin (an unrecognizable Robert Pattinson) he goes deeply enough into the jungles to realize there’s much more he must see.
The Lost City of Z takes Fawcett back and forth between England and Brazil several times. Each time he returns home, he finds his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) has given birth to yet another child; the eldest, Jack, grows up to be Tom Holland: Spider-Man among the tarantulas, as it were. One of the assets of Gray’s screenplay is how Nina is a full-fledged character with strong views and a wise kind of courage herself. She’s more than the abandoned wife, and Fawcett’s enlightened views on indigenous populations — apparently a fiction — extends to a sort of early feminism that is allowed to flourish here.
The early, more exciting scenes of The Lost City of Z comprise a rich adventure story orchestrated to lush symphonic music — it sounds like Masterpiece Theatre back there in England — that gives way to the mysterious growls and bird calls of the new land. As Fawcett’s life becomes more complex, we take side trips to a First World War trench for a horrifying vignette of battle (who’s the savage now?) and back to the Amazon in trips that test both Fawcett and some of his crew, including a proper Englishman (Angus Macfadyen) who is overwhelmed by the challenge.
Eventually, we’re overwhelmed as well: with a running time of almost 2½ hours, it feels like The Lost City of Z makes it points several times. Like Kurtz in The Heart of Darkness, Fawcett goes too far along the river, and we go with him, happily at first, then reluctantly. The message, which we learn several times, is that it’s a jungle out there.
– 30 –