THE LOST CITY OF Z (2016) is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by David Grann and tells the true story of British explorer Percy Fawcett who dedicated much of his life to expeditions into the Amazon in search of an ancient lost city.
The main reason I wanted to see THE LOST CITY OF Z was that it starred Charlie Hunnam as Percy Fawcett. Hunnam, of course, starred as Jax Teller on the TV show SONS OF ANARCHY (2008-2014), and I really enjoyed his work on that show.
In terms of Hunnam’s performance, THE LOST CITY OF Z does not disappoint. Hunnam is excellent. However, the same can’t be said for the movie as a whole.
The film opens in Ireland in 1906 where we are introduced to young British soldier Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) scoring big on a deer hunt, bagging the top prize of the day. Later, as he celebrates with his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and his fellow hunters at an elegant dance reception, we witness British dignitaries discussing who landed the prize deer, commenting that Percy is a fine man but is hindered by his unfortunate heredity. And thus we learn early on that the deck is stacked against Percy, as the sins of his father, a man he didn’t even know, are held against him. Percy knows, for right or wrong, he has to work harder than others to advance in life.
Later, he is disappointed to learn from his superiors that rather than being sent to the battlefield, he is being dispatched to the Amazon to help settle a border dispute in Brazil. Still, he believes if he succeeds on this mission, it will better his chances for advancement which will ultimately help him support his family. While on the expedition, he hears about a lost city which no white man had ever seen, and as he catches glimpses of possible evidence of this city, his focus on the expedition changes.
In fact, upon returning home, he receives financial backing to return to the Amazon with the express purpose of searching for the city, which he does, in spite of multiple obstacles, including World War I, where Percy finally sees the military action for which he had trained all his life.
THE LOST CITY OF Z is beautiful to look at with its fine atmospheric cinematography of the Brazilian rain forests, as well as period piece costumes and set designs of early 20th century Great Britain. The brief forays onto the desolate World War I battlefields are also impressive.
It also features fine acting performances from everyone involved. I’m a big fan of Charlie Hunnam, especially from his SONS OF ANARCHY days. His films have been less memorable. He played second fiddle to giant monsters in PACIFIC RIM (2013), and he was okay in the period piece horror movie by Guillermo del Toro, CRIMSON PEAK (2015), which also starred Jessica Chastain and Tom Hiddleston.
I enjoyed Hunnam a lot here as Percy Fawcett, and it’s probably the best performance I’ve seen him give so far aside from SONS OF ANARCHY. He gives Percy the required drive he needs to push on into the Amazon against all odds. He’s doing it for his family because he knows that without going the extra mile he’s not going to advance. He also keeps Percy from being too insanely dedicated. While men do perish on the expeditions, it’s not from Percy’s carelessness. Although he does put the mission first, he does not put his men in harm’s way.
Robert Pattinson (Edward in the TWILIGHT movies) does a nice job as Henry Costin, the man who accompanies Percy on these expeditions and becomes his most trusted friend. Sienna Miller also is memorable as Percy’s wife Nina, making her a strong independent woman, and she has to be, raising her family pretty much on her own because Percy is gone for years at a time. Yet, she remains supportive of her husband’s work, in spite of the toll it takes on her and her children who grow up without a father figure around.
Tom Holland, the most recent movie Spider-Man, shows up in the final third of the movie as Percy’s adult son Jack, and STAR WARS enthusiasts will recognize Ian McDiarmid, who played Chancellor Palpatine/aka the evil Emperor in the second STAR WARS trilogy, as Sir George Goldie, the man who sends Percy on his merry way to the Amazon.
Angus Macfadyen delivers a scene-stealing performance as James Murray, a veteran of Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to the Antarctic, who joins Percy’s second attempt to find the Lost City. Murray’s prior experience with Shackleton proves to be of little value, as his cowardly and selfish behavior turns out to be more of a hindrance than a help.
In spite of a strong cast and impressive cinematography, THE LOST CITY OF Z is hampered by poor pacing and a rather flat script. The film runs for two hours and twenty-one minutes, and it actually felt longer. Not that I expected this to be a Hollywood style production, but there’s no build-up here. There’s no sense of adventure, and there’s certainly no climax. The film just meanders along at its own pace, allowing Percy Fawcett’s story to unfold with no sense of urgency.
Percy embarks into the dangerous jungles of the Amazon, and for a brief time, things are somewhat intriguing. For example, there are several encounters with hostile cannibal tribes, but none of these meetings are all that frightening.
And the expeditions end abruptly. In the blink of an eye, Percy is back home in England, and after a brief interlude which includes some rather dull dialogue, Percy and his friends return to the Amazon for another go at it. Until they come home again. And so on and so on. Even a brief venture onto the battlefields of World War I doesn’t heighten the emotion.
Director James Gray presents this story as if it’s a film you’d watch at a museum exhibit. It tells its story but in about as non dramatic a way as you can imagine. Very little effort seems to have been spent at making this tale a cinematic experience.
Likewise, the screenplay by Gray based on David Grann’s book is also plain and drab. The dialogue is sufficient but ordinary. In short, neither the script nor the direction do much to bring this tale to life, in spite of the above-average cinematography and solid acting performances.
THE LOST CITY OF Z is an extraordinary tale presented in an ordinary way. As such, while I enjoyed watching Charlie Hunnam and the rest of the cast bringing their characters to life, I just never got all that excited about the movie as a whole. I felt as if I were sitting in a museum watching a movie about the exploits of one Percy Fawcett.
As such, I found myself yearning to get out of my seat to view the rest of the exhibit.
Books by Michael Arruda:
TIME FRAME, science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.
FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.