EXPLORERS YARN MAY INDUCE ZZZ’S
Dour but committed, The Lost City of Z sometimes feels like a journey in real time
The Lost City of Z, from American director James Gray, has many lessons for his countrymen. It can teach them the value of perseverance, the necessity of respect for indigenous cultures, and the proper way to pronounce the last letter of the alphabet.
The story follows the real-life exploits of Percy Fawcett, a British soldier from the turn of the last century who spent a good part of his life looking for “Zed,” his own code name for a lost city in the Amazon rainforest.
His adventures were written up in 2005, by David Grann as a New Yorker article, later expanded to a book about which critic Michiko Kakutani wrote in the New York Times: “It reads with all the pace and excitement of a movie thriller.” Hence the movie.
Unfamiliar with the book, I at first thought the title sounded like an altogether more lighthearted jungle caper, perhaps starring Nicolas Cage and Jay Baruchel. Gray, perhaps aware of this sort of misapprehension, has crafted a very dour excursion, headlined by a mostly unsmiling Charlie Hunnam as Fawcett, with Robert Pattinson as his heavily bearded aide-de-camp.
The movie opens with a stag hunt, of all things, after which we learn that Fawcett is motivated to go exploring as a way of bettering his name, having been, as one character notes, “rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors.” Ah, British circumlocution! I almost wish I hated this film, so I could write: “The director seems to have accidentally
exposed his film during an early dress rehearsal, then inadvertently released the images thus produced. Oh, and that’s a bad miss!”
But The Lost City of Z isn’t bad. It is a touch too earnest, and longer than necessary, with scenes of Fawcett being ridiculed at a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society, and later gassed in a Great War trench, that a less well-funded director might have conveyed with a single line of dialogue. This is what you get from “Brad Pitt presents ...”
But Fawcett and his mates are so wonderfully, staunchly Victorian in their adventures up the Amazon. At one point, caught in a fusillade of thrown spears, they call out “Savages!” and pile out of their boat, like suburban kids who yell “car!” and move their net during a game of street hockey.
Eventually the film itself gets its stiff upper lip on, with subtitles like “July 1906, Uncharted Eastern Bolivia.”
It wouldn’t do to reveal the various twists in the plot — presumably, relatively few moviegoers know the details of Fawcett’s life — except to say that fellow adventurer James Murray (Angus Macfadyen) joined his second expedition and proved less than worthy, while Pattinson’s character never wavered.
Nor did Fawcett. “The world will know what we have found!” he shouts at one point, even though all he has is rumour, gut feelings and some shards of ancient pottery.
His wife (Sienna Miller), a thoroughly liberated woman waiting for history to catch up with her, seems to have been remarkably patient with his globe-trotting.
You may be less so as Fawcett dives time and again into the Amazon basin (he made eight expeditions between 1906 and 1925), and the movie ambles past the two-hour mark. Or you may find yourself gripped with the same fever of tantalizing discovery — around this bend in the river! No? Then THIS one ... — that drove Fawcett ever forward. It is not a perfect movie, but it is a consistently committed one.
Charlie Hunnam, left, and Tom Holland star in The Lost City of Z.
James Gray’s The Lost City of Z is a touch too earnest and a little too long.