Charlie Hunnam plays Major Percival Fawcett, a member of the British military whose father tarnished the Fawcett family name through his various addictions. “Percy” is also an experienced surveyor, so when war is near breaking out between Brazil and Bolivia due to a burgeoning rubber industry combined with a lack of a distinct border between the two countries, Fawcett is called upon to head to the jungles between the two countries and determine where the border definitively lies. When he discovers the remnants of what can only be an ancient civilization during his mission, he develops a life long obsession with finding the lost city which only the “savages” in the area seem to know even ever existed and prove that the native people of the area aren’t really savages, after all.
The marketing campaign for The Lost City of Z made the film look as if it’s a pulp fiction (the genre, not the movie) style adventure complete with hostile natives, death defying escapes, and lost treasure hidden around every corner. What the movie really is, is a biography which covers the span of decades, following Percy from a time shortly after the birth of his first son, through World War I, and finishing with his final trip to the South American jungles. While archaeology and the Lost City do cast a shadow across the entire film, and Percy Fawcett’s story revolves around them, this is the story of a man, not a mission nor a place.
Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson (Henry Costin, Percy’s right hand man), and Sienna Miller (Nina Fawcett, Percy’s wife) headline the cast and all give performances that can best be described as proficient, but never exciting. All the actors give us a fully developed, realistic character whom we can fully believe, but for some reason they never allow us to become fully invested in them, the simulation of a life is there, but the spark is missing. The one exception to this is Angus Macfayden as James Murray, a man who insists on accompanying Fawcett on one of his trips which Murray funds. Murray ends up being a truly pathetic sham of a human being who jeopardizes the entire mission with his arrogance and incompetence, but he is also the one character that truly seems human, like a life we can be honestly witnessing.
Competent, but with no spark, is a good way to describe the entire film, actually. The camerawork gives us some beautiful shots, but what it gives us is more like looking at a landscape which you’d buy at an art fair rather than a Van Gogh or a Renoir. Sure, the cinematographer (Darius Khondji) knew what they were doing well beyond just where to point the camera, but there was no personal touch to it. Everything was pretty and easy to follow, but again – no spark.
The story itself is well written, the screenplay is probably the best part of the film, but could have been edited better. The Lost City of Z is a long movie, 2 hours and 20 minutes, and while I wouldn’t call that overly long if the time is well used, there are large chunks of the movie which could have been trimmed. The pacing of the entire film is a slow, even one, which doesn’t have to be an issue, but it seems that director James Gray was overly enamored with too much of his material, choosing to linger on conversations which served a very minor purpose or leaving in scenes which added little to nothing to the story.
Final verdict: As a history lesson, The Lost City of Z is actually pretty great, but know going into it that that is what you are getting, a biographical history lesson. Any adventure and excitement to found in the film is spaced very far apart and doesn’t last very long. What we have is a very clinical look at an interesting life. If you take a lot of interest in biographies and history then there is a lot to catch your interest in The Lost City of Z, for anyone else, though, I’m afraid this film may be too slow paced and aloof. There is a lot to learn here, but not a lot to enjoy.