James Gray's The Lost City of Z tells the story of real-life explorer Percy Fawcett, who attempted several times throughout his life to find what he theorized to be a lost city of an ancient civilization deep in the jungles of Brazil. He first goes as part of a mapping expedition in an attempt to clear his family name, but soon becomes obsessed with his theory of Z, an idea that is scorned by the close-minded members of the Royal Geographic Society since it presupposes that there were non-white advanced civilizations in the distant past. Fawcett's obsession leads him to attempt to find the city several times, only to be foiled by the dangers of the jungle or, more often, of the people that accompany him as he gets painfully close to what he feels will be a monumental discovery.
The real story is an incredibly fascinating one, and one that is surprisingly timely. Fawcett is open-minded and respectful of the customs of the tribes he meets, and fights vehemently against his stuffy backers that refuse to acknowledge any proof of an advanced society that was non-white. Fawcett comes so close so many times, and his heartbreak and obsession are often palpable.
Although I haven't read the book by David Grann on which the film is based, I suspect that this story works much better there than here. As interesting as the story is in broad strokes, it becomes very episodic and repetitive as a film. By the end, I found myself asking, "He's going back again?" as he makes his third or fourth expedition back to the jungle. While some of the interludes back in England as we see his family grow up without him and his time in World War I are necessary, they are far too long. The film never finds the right balance between Fawcett's home life and his adventures, and in the end is much too long at nearly two and a half hours.
The look and feel of the film, especially in the jungle portions, very much capture the thrill and draw that Fawcett feels in discovering new worlds. The dangers of the jungle are bloody and exotic, but frustratingly at least one expedition is spoiled by an ill-prepared companion who ruins their food rations when they insist on sending him back for medical attention. It is shot quite well by cinematographer Darius Khondji, who has worked on such diverse films as Se7en and several films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The way the film ends is thrillingly mysterious, eliciting gasps from our audience and certainly causing the traffic on Fawcett's wikipedia page to skyrocket.
Charlie Hunnam in the lead role is, as usual, pretty bland, but this time it seems more like script problems than anything else. The script doesn't really capture any personality of the character, and the dialogue often reads more like excerpts from a diary than real conversation. That said, Fawcett's desperate conviction comes through clearly, and the way he relates to the indigenous tribespeople is very convincing. A bearded Robert Pattinson plays his loyal companion on most of the expeditions, and continues to show that he is worthy of serious consideration as an actor.
Despite those issues, the film has stuck with me. This might have more to do with the mystery surrounding Fawcett and the compelling story of his eventful life than with the composition of the film itself, but there's something to that. If a film itself has a lot of problems, but opens up a part of history that you were previously unfamiliar with, does that make it a better film? I tend to think that illuminating something interesting despite artistic flaws does give some merit to a piece of art that might otherwise not be worth discussing. The Lost City of Z highlights a captivating moment of history from a time when there were still corners of the world that were yet uncovered by satellite photography, when proof of ancient civilizations lie just out of grasp in territories ripe with risk, and although it could have been crafted better, it's worth seeing for that alone.
The Lost City of Z is directed by James Gray and stars Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, and Tom Holland. It opens in theaters on April 14th, 2017.