The Lost City of Z.
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller
In "The Lost City of Z," set within the British Empire during the early decades of the 20th century, the English explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) spends years seeking out the natives of the Amazonian jungle--and the mystery behind them--with a sense of purpose that is never less than high and mighty, progressive and noble. He's a stiff-upper-lip adventurer-saint, enlightened in his thinking, driven by a personal quest that's really a desire to heighten the spirit of mankind.
The movie was written and directed by James Gray, adapting David Grann's 2009 nonfiction account of Fawcett and his expeditions, and Gray doesn't shape Fawcett's life into an overly tidy narrative; he lets it wind and sprawl.
Fawcett starts off getting an assignment from hell by the British army: In 1906, he is ordered to set sail for the jungles of Bolivia, where he's to map out the border between that country and Brazil, a murky divide that's leading to war. The British want to protect their investments in the region's rubber plantations. Fawcett, an ambitious young major who has never seen combat, has a selfish priority of his own: His father was a drunk and a gambler, and the disgrace of that legacy has barred his entrance to the upper echelons of British military society. He's promised that if he takes this mapping assignment and succeeds, he'll be rewarded with a new status.
It's a dicey tradeoff. Traveling up the Amazon on a raft along with his aide-decamp, Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson, amusingly unrecognizable in a beard and spectacles that make him look he's getting ready to star in "The Georges Bizet Story"), and a motley crew of assistants, including one South American slave, Willis (the superb Johann Myers), they are drifters in a hostile land, ducking showers of tribal arrows, subjected to starvation and disease.
For about 20 minutes, the movie suggests "Apocalypse Now" redone as a "Masterpiece Theatre" episode. But the slave tells Fawcett about an ancient city that no white man has ever seen, and during a hike through the jungle, when Fawcett finds faces carved into trees and sophisticated pieces of tribal pottery, he decides that the promise of that lost civilization is no Atlantis/El Dorado myth. He names the city "Zed," and from that moment he's driven to find it. He returns to England a celebrated explorer hero, but he wants to go back, and does. And then he goes back again.
"The Lost City of Z" is the story of an obsession. Yet Fawcett, as played by the 36-year-old Hunnam ("Sons of Anarchy"), is a character driven only by the high-minded rapture of his ideals. The British star, wearing a prominent mustache, may remind you here of a handful of other prominent thespians. At various points, he exudes the twinkly moral intelligence of Daniel Day-Lewis, the slightly sullen earnestness of Michael Fassbender, and the quizzical anonymity of Ben Foster. He's an accomplished actor, but he never brings a whisper of a dark side to Fawcett's crusade.
That helps make this finely crafted, elegantly shot, sharply sincere movie more absorbing than powerful. There are no major dramatic missteps, yet the film could have used an added dimension --something to make the two-hour, 20-minute running time feel like a transformative journey rather than an epic anecdotal saga.
More than most of Gray's films, this is its own organic creation, catching the audience up in the fervor of Fawcett's desire to locate the lost city and connect with the epiphany he's seeking. After the first voyage, there's an exciting scene where, aglow with his new mission, he gives a speech to the members of the Royal Geographical Society. He talks with religious exuberance about the artifacts he found and what they portend, as the white-haired fuddy-duddies in the audience jeer and mock him.
What Fawcett is suggesting--that a "primitive" Amazon tribe might have had an advanced society that predated Europe--is nearly as radical as the theory of evolution. The explorer realizes that he's not just searching for the lost city of Zed, he's--potentially--upending the meaning of Western Civilization. But at least one of the Society's members wants to join him: a burly upstart named James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), whose bluster will soon come back to haunt him.
The jungle scenes are full of threat --tribes with their whizzing and slashing weapons, wild beasts, the muddy isolation of it all. But that's balanced by the cozy utopia of Fawcett's home life. His wife, Nina, is played by Sienna Miller in one of the most warmly expressive performances of her career; she makes the character a vibrant feminist on the cutting edge of her time. As the years go on, they have three children, and Fawcett is absent for much of their upbringing, but the film treats this as a humane sacrifice.
The most haunting aspect of Fawcett's story is that he disappeared in the Amazon in 1925 and was never found. Gray is forced to imagine what happened, and this produces his strongest filmmaking. The movie culminates on a note of poetic doom that is strangely uplifting. Yet even this doesn't change what we think about Fawcett. He is, to the end, pristine in his obsession, and that makes him a character it's easier to revere than to love.
CREDITS; An Amazon Studios, Bleecker Street release of a Plan B Entertainment, MICA Entertainment, MadRiver Pictures production. Producers: Dede Gardner, Brad Pitt, Dale Armin Johnson, Anthony Katagas, Jeremy Kleiner. Executive producers: Marc Butan, Lew Horwitz, Mark Huffam, Michael Hitch Jr., Julie B. May, Glenn Murray. Director, writer: James Gray. Camera (color, widescreen): Darius Khondji. Editor: John Axelrad. Reviewed at New York Film Festival, Oct. 14, 2016. Running time: 140 MIN. CAST: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland, Angus Macfadyen, Johann Myers