Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Edward Ashley, Tom Holland, Angus MacFayden, Ian McDiarmid
Rated PG-13 for Violence, Disturbing Images, Brief Strong Language and Some Nudity
A poor choice in cinematographer casts a pall over “The Lost City of Z.” Oh sure, there are other problems, such as flat characterizations and odd directing choices. But the film's look, which is bleak and morose without any atmosphere, sinks the entire project. I’ve seen many films in my time, but never one where the lighting tanked it so completely.
To history and adventure buffs, the story of adventurer Percy Fawcett (Hunnam) is well known. An army officer turned Amazonian explorer sought to find a city hidden deep within the Amazon rainforest. Despite three attempts, he was unable to, and on the final attempt, he and his young son Jack (Holland) were never seen again.
The film version of his story starts at the early point in his career. Percy is an untried officer looking to rise up through the ranks and restore his family’s name. But assignments are hard to come by, and those that do are without much merit or honor. An opportunity comes his way when the National Geographic Society, led by Sir George Goldie (McDiarmid), asks him to determine a border. Hoping to gain more respect and money, he agrees. Together with his partners Henry Costin (Pattinson) and Arthur Manley (Ashley), they set out to scout the land. The journey is long, arduous and miserable. Danger, disease and death plague them. But when they get to their destination, Percy finds some ancient pottery that leads him to believe there is an ancient city nearby. Finding it becomes his life’s pursuit. And his demise.
“The Lost City of Z” is an adventure film, but an atypical one. Instead of something like “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” or the “Uncharted” video games, director James Gray goes for a more realistic, dangerous tone. That’s fine by me, especially since that vision is so in vogue these days. The problem is in its execution. Much is made of the dangers of the Amazon, but I never felt it. It’s the job of the director and cinematographer to make the audience feel the emotions that the characters do. Instead of a suffocating, humid place where the thrill of exploration is mixed with the fear of death, the Amazon seems like an ordinary place. I think in the desire for realism, Gray lost touch with what makes the jungle so unique.
The performances are fine, but by design, they’re kept low-key. Charlie Hunnam, a hugely talented British actor, is quite good here, managing to keep things afloat when everything else flounders. He’s better than the material he is given, which is really half-formed. Robert Pattinson is unrecognizable as Henry Costin and shows talent but little charisma. Sienna Miller can add this film to a long list of great performances. And Angus MacFayden plays a rich man so in over his head that he’s simultaneously infuriating (which is a compliment) and pathetic.
Either the film was edited down too much (even though it's 2.5 hours long as it is) or the screenplay needed another rewrite. I’m not sure which. What I am sure of is that the characters are flat and underdeveloped. We don’t know what makes them tick or who they really are. It’s hard to care about anyone in this film since they are so half-developed. The exception is Percy, but that’s because he’s in every scene. The film touches on ideas such as destiny, obsession, exploration, the drive for success, and so on but these aren’t well conveyed, and if they come across, they feel redundant. Even aside from that, there are scenes here that just don’t work. An example would be the scene when Percy asks the NGS to fund a return expedition. Tonally, it’s so scattered that I’m not even sure Gray himself knew what he was trying to accomplish with it. Other areas aren’t handled well either. Passages of time feel random and haphazard, the character of Arthur Manley is totally undeveloped for a character we’re clearly supposed to care about and the development of the relationship between Percy and Jack is, to put it mildly, extremely clunky.
The film is never boring and rarely uninteresting. It’s just that its problems and shortcomings are too obvious and too consistent for me to recommend it. Perhaps it will play better on Blu Ray.