Pioneering British explorer Percy Fawcett was one of the influences on the swashbuckling Indiana Jones character. The Lost City of Z, James Gray’s absorbing biopic on Fawcett’s life, is set in a world removed from Steven Spielberg’s popcorn adventures. Where the Indiana Jones franchise was about the thrill of adventure, Gray’s film is a portrait of one man’s obsession.
Set at the turn of the century, The Lost City of Z depicts a time when masculinity was measured by new discoveries. On his first trip to the Amazon, Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is on what he thinks is a survey expedition to mark out the border between Bolivia and Brazil. Once there, he encounters what he believes to be proof of a lost civilisation, akin to the mythical El Dorado, which he names “Zed”.
On his return, Fawcett receives accolades and becomes a celebrity, but the seeds of obsession have been planted. He must return to uncover the secrets of Zed, because they might also contain the answers to the mysteries of life. Joining him on the trip is Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson). Along with a team of explorers, Fawcett keeps venturing into what the film depicts as an infinite abyss of life-threatening peril. Each time he comes close, but one thing or another prevents him from accomplishing his goal. Every time, he is away from home, he moves further away behind his wife (Sienna Miller) and their three children.
The film takes its time to tell the story, and Darius Khondiji’s superb cinematography makes for an immersive visual experience. Gray and Khondiji take their cues from Hollywood epics of the 1950s, but their chief inspiration remains the two landmark portraits of obsession in hostile territories. On his frequent journeys down the river, the visual styling recalls Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
While The Lost City of Z never manages to rival the scope of those classics, it more than enough manages to hold up its own. Gray and Khondji remain ceaseless in their commitment to a kind of classical visual storytelling that Hollywood rarely delivers on these days. Gray shies from post-modern touches and is earnest in his devotion to epics from the ’50s, which makes the film richer and more textured.
What works against the movie is that the lead character is barely interesting. Sienna Miller is fantastic as Fawcett’s wife, who is trying to fight against the male-dominated world of 19th century England. Every time he leaves her behind to go on his adventure, the film becomes lesser for it. Pattinson’s Costin, who conveys his distrust of the entire enterprise, and never really makes apparent what he thinks of the journey, keeps stealing the attention from Hunnam.
The 37-year-old Hunnam, who appeared in the television show Sons of Anarchy and Guy Ritchie’s pilloried King Arthur: Legend of the Sword , seems too perfect, too trained and too rehearsed. We are never really allowed to gain a vision into the dark underbelly of Fawcett’s obsession.