PLOT In the early 1900s, a British explorer scours the Amazon for proof of an ancient civilization. Based on a true story.
CAST Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller
RATED PG-13 (several gruesome scenes)
BOTTOM LINE A gripping, powerful drama that shines a realistic light on a romantic figure.
“The Lost City of Z,” James Gray’s riveting adventure-drama about the British explorer Percy Fawcett, takes place in a time that was not so long ago — the early 20th century — but seems in many ways like ancient history. Before Google Maps, before the satellite, almost before even the airplane, Fawcett ventured into uncharted Bolivia, initially on a straightforward mapmaking mission. When he discovers several pottery shards along the way, Fawcett becomes convinced that the myth of a city hidden in the jungle — an El Dorado of sorts — must be true.
It’s hard to say who has the more blinkered vision here: Fawcett (a stoic but sensitive Charlie Hunnam), who spends years at a time in the jungle apart from his family (Tom Holland, of “Spider-Man” fame, plays Fawcett’s eldest child, Jack), or the members of England’s Royal Geographical Society, who burst into laughter at the idea that brown-skinned “savages” could attain anything close to civilization. In some ways, the movie illuminates a clash of hardened worldviews, each seemingly untenable.
“The Lost City of Z,” based on David Grann’s nonfiction book, takes a very different approach to the classic figure of the jungle explorer. We’ve seen him in countless iterations, sometimes as a macho Hemingway type (the Frank Buck movies of the 1930s), sometimes as an example of white hubris (the doomed conquistador in “Aguirre: The Wrath of God”). Fawcett falls somewhere in between. Like any man of his time, he’s concerned with career “advancement,” yet he’s also motivated by a growing respect for the tribesmen he meets. Arriving at a cannibal encampment, Fawcett is politely invited by the chief to dine — and so he does, to the horror of his colleagues.
This is a richly detailed and beautifully constructed film from writer-director Gray. Mindful of his male-centric story, Gray pays close attention to Fawcett’s wife, Nina (a moving Sienna Miller), who pays perhaps the greatest cost for his excursions. Robert Pattinson is surprisingly strong as Henry Costin, a fellow explorer who has less charisma but, it turns out, more wisdom.
The film’s haunting, hallucinatory ending is something to behold. “The Lost City of Z” is such a vivid immersion into a time of dreams and possibilities that Fawcett’s ever-receding destination seems to be out there still, waiting to be discovered.