Even if he never realized it, British explorer Percy Fawcett’s obsessive search for civilization in the Amazon jungle was more about a search for himself.
A biopic about his adventures might not reach the terrifying scale of Heart of Darkness, but The Lost City of Z is an evocative and well-crafted drama that puts a face to the legend.
As the film opens, Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is an officer in the British army sent on a two-year mission to draw borders between Bolivia and Peru, thereby settling a dispute between the South American nations. Perhaps more importantly to Fawcett, the trip presents an opportunity to clear his middle-class family’s name after a past incident involving his father.
Leaving his wife (Sienna Miller) at home, Fawcett and his military colleague (Robert Pattinson) arrive in the harsh jungle, encountering angry natives and flesh-eating piranhas along the way. Plus, they uncover evidence of an ancient city, the validity of which is dismissed by the prejudiced aristocracy back home.
Between obligations involving his growing family and World War II, Fawcett spends the ensuing decades returning to the site of his alleged discovery, including a perilous voyage to bond with his son (Tom Holland) harboring resentment for his absenteeism.
The contemplative screenplay by director James Gray (We Own the Night), adapted from the book by David Grann, offers an even-handed glimpse at how Fawcett’s curiosity turns into full-blown fixation, threatening to tear apart both his personal and professional life.
The film is sumptuously shot by cinematographer Darius Khondji (Midnight in Paris) in a way that makes the lush setting both sprawling and intimate, and a timeless source both of calm and danger.
Meanwhile, Hunnam smartly balances strength and vulnerability in his performance.
Gray treats the material as an old-fashioned epic of sorts, for better and worse. The deliberate pace leads to some rambling in the middle section, although the depth and complexity with which Gray explores familiar themes — physical, emotional, and spiritual — is a refreshing antidote to the contemporary glut of effects-driven blockbusters.
The Lost City of Z is comparatively small in scale and lacks the sort of definitive metamorphic payoff that some might anticipate. Yet like its protagonist, this worthy portrait of a fascinating figure drifts off the mainstream path. The result is appealing to both the eyes and the brain.
Rated PG-13, 141 minutes.