THE LOST CITY OF Z, adventure drama, rated R, Violet Crown,
Percy Fawcett must have been quite a fellow. He ventured deep into Amazonia multiple times in the early 20th century, in pursuit of his dream of finding a lost city. This telling, based on David Grann’s 2009 nonfiction bestseller, compacts those expeditions into three, on the third of which … but we’re getting ahead of the story.
We meet Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) as a young British officer stationed in Cork, Ireland. He’s clearly the class of his regiment — bold, handsome, a crack shot, a great rider — but he can’t seem to get ahead. The problem, as an older officer remarks sotto voce, lies in “his poor choice of ancestors.” His father, it seems, was a drunk, and dragged the family name into the gutter. When Fawcett is assigned by the army to map a contested border between Bolivia and Peru, he grumbles that there are no medals to be won there. But orders are orders.
Soon he’s waist-deep in jungle vines, hacking his way through dense foliage and rafting with his party down dangerous stretches of river as arrows whizz past their ears. His companions include Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley), and an Indian slave they pick up as a guide. The guide mentions rumors of a lost city down the river, the remains of a once-great civilization. Fawcett scoffs, but when he finds some potsherds near the location, he begins to believe. But first he has to return to England and raise the money to mount another expedition.
This time he almost makes it, but again Fate and Circumstance stop him just short of his goal. I was reminded of the Marx Brothers airman routine from A Night at the Opera, where Chico says, “So now I tell you how we fly to America. The first time we start, we get halfway across when we run out of gasoline and we gotta go back. Then I take twice as much gasoline. This time we were just about to land, maybe three feet, when what do you think? We run out of gasoline again. And back we go again and get more gas.”
The Lost City of Z’s strongest suit is its gorgeous photography by Darius Khondji. But it strains in the story department, with its enlightened, noble, ahead-of-his-time hero. In our own time, when adventure seems so played out and the world has lost much of its wonder, we still have lost cities coming to light, including the Lost City of the Monkey God in the Honduran jungle, in whose discovery Santa Fe author Douglas Preston played a part. Fawcett’s adventures a century earlier must have been incredibly challenging, dangerous, and exciting. Writer-director James Gray captures some of that, but he surrenders too often to the clichés of the movies. — Jonathan Richards