Major Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) expects to be handed a military assignment, only to be sent to Bolivia by the Royal Geographic Society to chart more detailed maps. While in the jungle Fawcett witnesses signs of an undiscovered civilization – a find that changes the course of his life and turns into an obsession.
‘They don’t make them like they used to’ is a perennial cry among the nostalgic when viewing contemporary art – whether fine art, theatre, music, or film. In the case of James Gray’s visually sumptuous and richly melodic film The Lost City of Z, it turns that actually sometime they do make them like they used to. Like something out of the 1970s, and bringing to mind the likes of Fitzcarraldo and The Man That Would Be King, the film thrusts its early 20th century hero from England to South America and into a grand jungle adventure. While possessing a more modern depiction of the continent’s indigenous peoples than its precedents, there is still a distinctly old-fashioned vibe informing Gray’s film.
A lot of this pleasant nostalgia comes from Darius Khondji’s evocative and gloriously lit photography. He is one of the world’s very best cinematographers, with an ability to tailor perfect visual aesthetics to different films. His credits include the likes of Delicatessen, Seven, and Midnight in Paris, and he has worked with an impressive range of directors including David Fincher, Bong Joon-ho, Wong Kar-wai, and Sydney Pollack. Here he follows Gray’s lead in developing an epic Lean-esque sort of an adventure story, and emphasises it through superb use of light, shadow, and a dizzying number of varieties of the colour green.
Charlie Hunnam makes for a rock-solid Fawcett, driven by passion and ambition – as well as a strong intent to redeem a shaky, disgraced family name. Sadly Gray’s screenplay does not quite give Hunnam enough room for his character to expand and breathe, but he is thankfully supported by both Sienna Miller’s more emotive turn as Fawcett’s dedicated wife (sadly under-utilised) and Robert Pattinson’s right-hand man Henry Costin. It is another performance for Pattinson in a long line of quiet, well-developed characters that collectively demonstrate just how much the popular Twilight features squandered his talents. Angus Macfadyen (Braveheart) has a brief but gloriously odious supporting role as a rival explorer, which adds a much-needed burst of energy during the film’s middle act.
Gray has a difficult needle to thread during the film, with its cavalcade of mannered upper-class Englishmen constantly threatening to shift the work into self-parody. To Gray’s credit, that shift never quite comes into play thanks to some superb scenes involving Bolivian indigenous tribes.
It is a relatively long film, as these historical epics tend to be, and there is a sense of stretching the movie a little too much as it approaches the ends of its second hour. There is a lot of story to tell, and the constant back and forth between South America and England drags a lot of energy from the parts that work. Those parts, nearly all set in the Bolivian jungle, genuinely sing: while flawed, this ambitious and evocative love letter to past cinema has some stupendous highlights.