The Lost City of Z: a thoroughly adequate adventure 

In The Lost City of Z, director James Gray competently adapts author David Grann's nonfiction account of Percy Fawcett's famed exploration of the Amazonian jungle at the turn of the 20th century. This is a gorgeous picture with methodical pacing and a vaguely powerful message that didn't exactly overwhelm me, but I'm not underwhelmed either. It's like a line drive straight down the middle—I am sufficiently whelmed.

The film stars British actor Charlie Hunnam as Percy, a man who begins his quest with one ambition and ends with different ideas entirely, having been forever changed by a life filled with adventures in the jungle and other mysterious and sobering experiences. Hunnam is an actor previously unknown to me, but he's been getting around. (He's also currently starring in the so-far colossal box office failure King Arthur: Legends of the Sword, for example.)

Hunnam really sank his teeth into this role, apparently, losing more than 20 pounds and spending four months sequestered in the jungle to feel the feelings associated with inhospitable jaunts. He really went the extra mile, which makes me feel kind of bad when I flippantly write that I found his performance a tad stiff. (I dismiss this man's monumental efforts while comfortably sipping coffee in an air-conditioned coffee shop—we're both method in our own ways.)

The story begins by establishing Fawcett as a brave, competent servant of Britain, whom the aristocracy describes as having "an unfortunate choice of ancestors." On the heels of Fawcett's successful elk slaying, the powers that be task him with the perilous task of mapping the previously uncharted corners of Bolivia. The journey will take several years and might claim his life, but success will afford him the opportunity to restore his family name once and for all. A man named Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) will accompany him on the journey, while his independent and unflappable wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), stays home to raise their son and unborn child. (Nina is given about as much agency as a woman at the turn of the century could hope for. Is the part where Fawcett asserts that he and his wife are intellectually equal in the book, or was that added for film audiences?)

click to enlarge Charlie Hunnam stars in The Lost City of Z.
  • Charlie Hunnam stars in The Lost City of Z.

Scenes of the British aristocracy reminded me of Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence, in which the stifling formalities of society life are at the forefront. In The Lost City of Z, the social stratification exists unobtrusively in the background. Once the expedition moves to the jungle, I'm reminded even more of Werner Herzog's masterpiece, Aguirre: The Wrath of God, about Spanish conquistadors' doomed expeditions through similarly unforgiving landscapes hundreds of years earlier. In both films, native people unpredictably shoot arrows at rafts. But where Aguirre's journey feels existentially ill-fated, Fawcett's quest is plump with destiny and purpose. Somewhere along the line, our hero abandons his practical ambitions in lieu of a search for the ethereal "Lost City of Z." Proof of an ancient lost civilization (scandalously older than those of Europe) exists somewhere deep in the Amazonian forest, and darned if Fawcett isn't going to one day find it.

If the film feels a bit anti-climactic, blame reality. Nonfiction stories don't always fit tidily in a three-act structure. For lack of a triumphant resolution, Gray gives us instead a spiritual crescendo. And while it didn't exactly make me feel anything, I'm confident that for others, the elements are there to be felt.

The Lost City of Z opens at the Roxy Fri., May 26.

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