To really appreciate “The Lost City of Z,” it would help not to consider its hero a complete idiot. True, my own impression of the British explorer Percy Fawcett was derived from the movie itself, from information that writer-director James Gray placed there. But that impression couldn’t have been Gray’s intention. No one would make a two and a half hour movie about an idiot, not even Jerry Lewis at his most grandiose.
Based on David Grann’s book, “The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession,” the film tells the story of Fawcett, a British military officer who was sent to South America to chart the jungles along the Amazon. At the start of the film, Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is a young man with something to prove, and so he leaves his pregnant wife (Sienna Miller) for years and risks disease and cannibals to go off and make his name.
Gray’s presentation of the jungle is without doubt striking. To watch Fawcett and his small crew navigating the waters or hacking their way through the foliage is to feel like you are there, and for many that will constitute a recommendation. In the end, it depends on just how much a viewer wants to feel stuck on a boat, in boiling heat, with your shirt stuck to your back and with mosquitoes swarming and natives firing arrows. A case could be made in favor of such an experience, but it won’t be made here.
While on that first expedition, Fawcett finds some pottery and carvings and leaps to the conclusion that he is on the verge of discovering ruins from an ancient and previously unknown civilization. This becomes the mission of his life. He goes back to London and tells everybody. He’s forceful. He’s certain. He is determined to go back and find something besides a broken pot.
With a movie about an obsessed and driven protagonist, it helps if the protagonist’s goal seems worth it. The movie makes a feint in the direction of egalitarianism, that Fawcett is out to discover pre-Christian non-Europeans were capable of creating a sophisticated civilization. Fine. But what would be the tangible good of finding such a civilization? For sure, it would be of considerable archaeological interest. At the same time, it would probably destroy every tribe and village near it and bring in a flood of European businesses to rape the environment. No wonder the first impulse of the indigenous residents is to fire arrows at his boat.
There is also the personal cost, which the movie is very good about showing. Imagine being married to this guy. Percy and his wife, Nina, start their life together with a lot of talk about equality between the sexes, and Sienna Miller, as the wife, plays that. She plays a woman radiant in her inner value and confident that she has a man who loves and respects her. But he loves and respects her so much that he disappears for years. He comes back just long enough to get her pregnant, then leaves for a few years, only to have to reintroduce himself to the latest children upon his return.
Again, if Fawcett were pursuing some noble end, then it might be worth our while to sit and watch his struggle. Or, conversely, were he some interesting form of lunatic, that might be something, too. But instead he’s somewhere in between, a hero who is really not a hero. The last chapter of Fawcett’s career, which I won’t reveal, is selfish and irresponsible to an indefensible degree.
‘The Lost City of Z’
Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller.
Writer-director: James Gray.
Running time: 141 minutes.
Rating: PG-13 (violence, disturbing images, brief strong language and some nudity).