The Lost City of Z.

The Lost City of Z is based on David Grann’s bestselling 2009 book about Percy Fawcett, a renowned British explorer who disappeared in central South America sometime after 1925 during an expedition to find the remnants of a long-gone advanced civilization there. Starring Charlie Hunnam as Fawcett, the movie hews relatively closely to Fawcett’s true story and offers many compelling scenes from his first two expeditions to the Amazon basin, but doesn’t give us enough understanding of its protagonist to create real interest in the character’s fate. The movie is available free on amazon prime.

Hunnam plays the dashing hero, complete with a Poirot-esque mustache, whom we first meet as the Royal Geographical Society asks him to journey to the center of the continent to help map the disputed border between Brazil and Bolivia. (If you don’t know much South American history, here’s a good summary: Bolivia kept picking border fights with its neighbors and lost every one of them, including one fight that cost the country its narrow coastline on the Pacific.) He’s reluctant to take on a non-military mission, but does so in the hopes of restoring his family name – the film has his father as a degenerate gambler and drunk, although that may be fictional – and sets off with the help of Coatson (Robert Pattinson) to chart the border and eventually find the source of a major river. The journey is perilous, many redshirts don’t survive it, and even the men who do are in sad shape when they reach the river’s source, but they do and return home to a heroes’ welcome. That spurs another expedition that doesn’t go quite so well, but the two combine to convince Fawcett of the existence of the city of Z, and he yearns for one more chance to go discover it.

Hunnam himself is a charmless man in the lead role – he probably knows his claret from his Beaujolais – and the movie truly suffers for it. Benedict Cumberbatch was originally attached to the project, and his charisma is sorely missed here. Pattinson steals every scene he’s in with Hunnam, thoroughly inhabiting his character’s rakishness and loyalty right to the very end of his arc. Sienna Miller is similarly blank in her role as Fawcett’s wife, looking pretty but feeling one-dimensional – she’s the suffering wife, no, she’s the loyal little lady, no, she’s the proud wife and mother, as if we see three different women at different points in the film.

The scenery, however, is stunning – it is an expertly made film, with gorgeous, expansive shots of the jungle and the rivers. There’s real action and suspense when they’re on expeditions, and the scenes in London feel more like interstitials. There’s a short subplot, based on actual events, around another explorer who comes on their second mission and is badly injured, giving Fawcett a real antagonist but also ending abruptly (as it did in real life). When Fawcett came home, as a father and husband I couldn’t understand his willingness to leave his wife and children, but as a viewer I wanted him to get back to the jungle and do stuff.

Of course, the movie suffers from the unknown: Theories abound as to what happened to Fawcett and his son on their final mission, and Grann used a legend he heard from one of the native tribes in the region to craft a new hypothesis, but we just don’t know. The script doesn’t deal well with the uncertainty, giving us an ambiguous egress for the two men and a sentimental ending for Fawcett’s wife. Perhaps fabricating a specific outcome would have gone too far, but charting their progress and disappearance from London may have served the film better.

This is a very solid, competently made film that just lacks the extra level of emotion that would connect viewers to the story or the main character. We learn so little of Fawcett’s background that his wanderlust is a bit hard to grasp, and Hunnam plays him so clinically that, if I didn’t know better, I’d think he was an American actor trying too hard to nail the upper class British accent. (Hunnam is English.) More prologue might have helped – or less, if perhaps we’d started in the Amazon and skipped some of the home scenes. It feels very much like a movie that could have been great, but isn’t.

Comments

  1. I watched the first 30-40 minutes of this on Prime about a month ago after enjoying the book, but have never gotten around to finishing the movie. I agree that Hunman is the weak link leading to kind of a blank space in the center of the narrative. I will keep hoping for better for Sienna Miller–but unfortunately I think most of the roles available to her are these generic wife/girlfriend type.

  2. I love Hunnam because of his work on Sons of Anarchy but I agree, his performance was lacking. It’s hard to not think that him getting the part barely two weeks before shooting began was a contributing factor – if he’d had more time to prepare, maybe he’d have done better.

  3. Yinka Double Dare

    It’s a good thing they finally cut out those border wars or else their territory might have entirely faded into bolivian

  4. Hey Keith,

    I know this isn’t the right spot for this, but wanted to give you a head’s up on an error in your top 50 free agent column. Clayton Richard signed a 2-year extension to stay in SD in late September and isn’t a free agent. Not trying to be “that guy”, just figured you’d like to know.

    • I appreciate it. Off topic comments are fine as are corrections so you did the right thing by me. Thanks.

  5. I walked out of the theater about 45 minutes in. This movie was not enjoyable, little entertainment value….

  6. I also found it a difficult movie to engage with for whatever reason. A far better film in this genre is Bob Rafaelson’s 1990 “Mountains of the Moon,” about the quest to discover the source of the Nile by Burton and Speke. Haven’t seen it in years, but there are images in that film that stay with me.

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