There are many paths one could take in making a movie of famed explorer Percy Fawcett’s Amazonian obsession, and with The Lost City of Z writer-director James Gray tried to follow them all.
I realize cinematic expectations are a little low this time of year, but I am surprised by the rhapsodic reception being given The Lost City of Z, apparently by its virtue of not being another Smurfs movie. Which is not to say it is bad, just a bore. It is, courtesy of the great cinematographer Darius Khondji, beautiful to watch; it has an occasional pulse thanks to Sienna Miller (as Fawcett’s steely wife, Nina) and Robert Pattinson (as Fawcett’s wry traveling companion Costin); and it contains a few glorious cinematic moments orchestrated by Gray, an underappreciated director for whom film critics root and whose last movie was the richly textured The Immigrant, one of the best films of 2013.
But to compare The Lost City of Z, as some critics have, to Lawrence of Arabia, Apocalypse Now and Aguirre, The Wrath of God is lazy and gratuitous. Those films possess a certain mad clarity; one wishes The Lost City of Z had a touch of their mania.
Gray draws strands from a nearly two-decade stretch of Fawcett’s life, but he doesn’t quite spin them into anything cohesive. Subplots and ideas flare here and there then ember out, leaving little residual impression of the controversial Fawcett (a mannered Charlie Hunnam), his travels, or his (debatable) significance. The film too often deviates to drawing-room mini-melodramas between Fawcett and Nina, and Fawcett and the Royal Geographical Society, scenes weighted with subtext regarding class, gender and race intended, maybe, to shed modern enlightenment on the mores of the time and show us how little distance we’ve come but that instead slow the movie to an oppressive, self-serious grind.
Fawcett’s journeys through the Amazon basin, which he surveyed over seven expeditions between 1906 and 1925 (the movie depicts three), seem to be where the film’s not-so-dark heart lies, but these sequences are so brief and fragmentary that one never gets a sense of Fawcett’s fixation with the region, its people or finding the titular lost city. The narrative is further stagnated by an extended World War I battle sequence that, while based on fact, feels out of place, though it does feature the welcome return of Pattinson’s Costin, the film’s lone wit (it should be noted that Costin and Fawcett never fought alongside each other in battle).
Another curious embellishment arrives with Fawcett’s final expedition and disappearance. Fawcett vanished in 1925 along with his son Jack (then 21) and Jack’s best friend, Raleigh Rimell. Rimell’s life is vanquished from the movie in favor of a rote father-son-resentment-followed-by-reconciliation storyline that otherwise receives little attention and comes to an abrupt conclusion that doesn’t have the gravity the moment demands.
I am pleased for Gray and Co. that The Lost City of Z is proving a modest hit, but I think those unfamiliar with his work would find The Immigrant more rewarding and those seeking a contemplative jungle adventure would be better served by 2015’s visionary Embrace of the Serpent, which is based loosely on the journals of Theodor Koch-Grünberg, a German ethnologist whose own Amazonian explorations overlapped with Fawcett’s.
As with The Immigrant, The Lost City of Z’s final shot is a doozy. But in this case, it lacks the power it desires to impart; it contains echoes from a wilder, untrod path.