MOVIE REVIEW: The Lost City of Z

(Image courtesy of Bleeker Street via


The most crucial dramatic trait for films about exploration is a drawing a strong reaction to the unknown from the audience.  Whether it’s a historical story or a fantastical one of fiction, the film has to evoke awe, be that stirring swells of inspiration or jarring feelings of danger.  It has to move you, not bore you.  If a film can’t achieve that quickened pulse or heavy heart, it’s little better than a travelogue on cable television or a curriculum video they show soon-to-be-bored high school students in Social Studies class.

James Gray’s “The Lost City of Z” assembled all of the dry ingredients a film would need to achieve that effect.  The cast is solid, if not revelatory at the top.  The production values are exquisite and impressive, complete with raw location shooting.  It draws from ripe and sound, yet little-known, history.  That said, it’s missing the binding ingredient of compelling emotion.  It’s missing that honed and resonating edge to cut deep.

Based on David Grann’s 2009 New York Times bestseller of the same name, the film chronicles the early 20th century exploration journeys of Britain’s Percy Fawcett, played by Charlie Hunnam.  Seeking advancement as a talented but undecorated colonel in the British army in 1906, Fawcett was handsomely commissioned by the Royal Geographical Society to rise in class and make a name for himself as an explorer.  His destination was the uncharted jungles of the Amazon River basin throughout the contested territories of South America.

Partnered with Corporal Henry Costin (a bearded Robert Pattinson), a trusted and experienced adjutant, Fawcett would go on to lead seven expeditions into the wilds of the Amazonian rainforests, ingratiating himself with the natives, dodging dangers, and gaining international glory.  After discovering artifacts of human civilizations that predate European history, Fawcett became fixated on the titular theory of a great indigenous city in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil.  Time and again, his obsessive quests and his military service in World War I would leave his strong-willed wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and increasingly despondent children, especially his oldest son Jack (Tom Holland), at home across the Atlantic wondering by what skin of what teeth would it take for their patriarch to satiate his desire and survive.  

Looking like a young Val Kilmer and carrying himself with twice the mettle and stoicism, this is easily the best Charlie Hunnam has been on the big screen, albeit from a small and unimpressive sample size (no one is opening award envelopes with Hunnam’s name for “Pacific Rim”) still awaiting Guy Ritchie’s “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” right around the summer blockbuster corner.  In a role earmarked for Brad Pitt (who remained on as a producer) and Benedict Cumberbatch before him, Hunnam brings a tangible vigor that would arguably surpass what either predecessor could have achieved.  He weathers the emotional and physical challenges in a throwback leading man performance.  

Hunnam may be the torchlight that burns at the core of James Gray’s film.  Unfortunately, no one else can hold a candle to that flame.  To consider “The Lost City of Z” as a biopic alongside the adventure saga, a little support could have gone a long way.

Robert Pattinson plays this thankfully straight, but his level of gristle at the man who bears witness to borderline madness is weak.  Somehow, Sienna Miller, at the prime age of 35, has become cursed into a reductive cycle of love interest/spouse roles (“American Sniper,” “Black Mass,” “Foxcatcher,” “Live by Night,” and “High-Rise”).  She received one half-hearted soapbox moment for women’s equality that becomes as wasted as her talent.  The stiff upper lips of Ian McDiarmid, Angus Macfayden, and Harry Melling fill the rest of the ensemble with little impact.

The ambition of director James Gray is wholly present, in his grandest production yet.  His decision for noted cinematographer Darius Khondji (“Amour,” “Se7en”) to shoot the film on rich 35mm film is masterful.  Khondji’s lenses soak up every morsel of light, mist, and mud from the raw Columbian shooting locations.  The setting has authentic realism and looks properly intimidating, filtered by lush music from Christopher Spelman, but you never truly feel that perilous weight in the events that occur among the characters.  That’s the missing element for this exploration film.  

The human fortitude of survival and the stirring discoveries of the Fawcett story needed to resonate with heightened senses to justify such artistic investment.  Fawcett’s expedition diaries, filled with harrowing chapters of pitfalls and bewilderment, directly inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to write his seminal fantasy “The Lost World.”  The trials and tribulations on “The Lost City of Z” should stoke fears, unravel wills, and compel wonderment.  Your jaw will never drop in any of those directions and you’ll only be moved to check your watch repeatedly.

LESSON #1: STAY OUT OF THE JUNGLE-- In a fun tidbit of trivia, James Gray asked “Apocalypse Now” director Francis Ford Coppola advice about shooting a film in the jungle.  Coppola echoed to Gray what Roger Corman told him before “Apocalypse Now” by saying “Don’t go.”  Oddly enough, that’s excellent counsel both inside and outside the film.  As a second “scholarly” cinematic source, Jon Voight’s “Anaconda” slimeball preached that “this river can kill you in a thousand ways.”  Face it, you and I weren’t made for the jungle.  You and I are bothered by mosquitoes at family picnic or by a small pieces of gravel that find their way into our flip-flops.

LESSON #2: SAVAGERY IS A UNIVERSAL HUMAN TRAIT-- Many starched European shirts in the film label the indigenous Amazonian people as “savages.”  Through close-minded sips of wine and puffs of aristocracy, the explorers think they are doing the natives a favor by bringing their wares and ways to them.  Ambivalence, hubris, and intrusive selfishness reveal the real proprietors of barbarity and callousness.