What was the last great explorer movie? Not something like Everest, but I mean a classic exploration film with brave souls venturing into dangerous terrain no man has dared to tread. The most recent and best may have been 2015's Embrace of the Serpent, a film that earned accolades but little in the terms of audience. And part of that is because the allure of the jungle terrain favored by the genre holds an almost obsessive appeal to filmmakers, with everyone from Martin Scorsese to Francis Ford Coppola to Werner Herzog venturing into the sweltering heat to tell stories that are frequently about men consumed by their own obsessions.
James Gray, who has built a career telling small stories set in the confines of New York, is probably the last director you'd expect to direct a big, sweeping jungle adventure like The Lost City of Z. But upon reflection, he's managed to bring the same level of intimacy to all of his films even as the canvas increases in size and scope. From We Own the Night to Two Lovers to The Immigrant, the latter now looking like a test case, Gray has managed to tell stories with a tight emotional focus regardless of the genre they're in. The Lost City of Z is based on the book by David Grann, and stars Charlie Hunnam as the real-life early 20th-century explorer/soldier/adventurer, Percy Fawcett, who dedicated his life to discovering a lost city of gold deep within the Amazon.
And it is dedication and passion more so than pure egomaniacal obsession that fuels Percy's quests. Driven by a desire to redeem his family name after his father squandered it, and rebelling against a stodgy British society that brands the indigenous tribes as savages, Fawcett leaves behind his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and children (Tom Holland is the oldest son Jack) on what would be a decades-long odyssey. A soldier at heart, Fawcett is reluctant to take on what seems like a boring surveying expedition, but he soon discovers that the Amazon holds dangers unique from the battlefield. Joined by Henry Costin (a game and bushy-bearded Robert Pattinson), a native guide and a few other explorers, Fawcett encounters deadly creatures, sweltering heat, disease, starvation, and tribes eager to wipe out the invading white man. But he also begins to succumb to the visceral beauty of the land and the ancient culture he finds with the native people. It's from them that he learns about the lost city, and after returning home a conquering hero for setting foot on uncharted territory, he's eager to return and find what no outsider has ever laid eyes on.
Who knows if Fawcett was quite as altruistic as he's portrayed by Gray, who also wrote the script. He's depicted as a man who desires, more than almost anything, to prove the indigenous people are more advanced than the British government gives them credit for. He mounts a staunch, vocal defense of them to a body of his peers in the Royal Geographical Society, only to endure chants of "Pots and pans!" when he presents evidence that run contrary to Western ideas of superiority. To Fawcett, finding the lost city before somebody else can come along and potentially destroy these ancient civilizations becomes paramount, even though it means putting his own family at risk. It's interesting that he's far more progressive in his opinions regarding race than he is when it comes to gender. When Nina makes the case that she should come along on the second expedition, Fawcett refuses on the basis of her being a woman. This despite Nina proving herself to be at least his intellectual equal who made a discovery that proved invaluable. Fawcett also proves dismissive of his son, Jack, at least until he gets that same itch to explore the unknown.
So Fawcett is presented as a complicated man willing to set aside everything to achieve his personal goals. It's the kind of role most actors dream of and the closest many will ever get to play Lawrence of Arabia or Indiana Jones. Hunnam still doesn't have the charisma to be completely captivating, but he bears the crushing weight of Fawcett's 20-year journey well. He makes for a capable leader of men and a complicated husband/father, sharing some strong scenes with Miller and Holland. His best moments are with Pattinson, not surprising since they spend the bulk of the movie sharing the screen together. This is another strong understated supporting role for Pattinson as he continues to run away from his early-career fame.
You might be surprised for a movie that features dangers around every tree and takes its characters from warring natives to the trenches of WWI, The Lost City of Z is methodical rather than action-packed, and it can get a little flat for certain stretches of time. Despite the 2 1/2 hour runtime it never feels overlong and is certainly never boring A share of the credit goes to the glorious 35mm cinematography by Darius Khondji, who drapes the jungle scenes in a glistening hue so that you can practically feel the heat. Every inch of the production design captures the beauty and danger of the Amazon, although the score by Randall Poster and George Drakoulias feels a little old fashioned, perhaps trying too hard to capture the feel of classic explorer movies.
The Lost City of Z doesn't glorify Fawcett, but nor does it condemn him for leaving his family behind, and possibly endangering them, because of his personal obsession. The nature of such obsession is deeply personal; we aren't meant to understand every reason behind Fawcett's exhaustive quest. What we have is Gray's equally exhaustive, some might say obsessive, approach to passing down Fawcett's story, and that is enough to make us eager to receive it.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5