There are times during James Gray’s The Lost City of Z – the closing night film at this year’s New York Film Festival that tells the true story of English explorer Percy Fawcett (played by Charlie Hunnam) – that reminded me of an Indiana Jones movie. Before you scoff, I just want to specify that I mean specifically the scenes in Raiders of the Lost Ark of Indiana Jones teaching, leading explorations, and engaging foreign cultures in native languages with compassion and intrigue. (You know, all the kind of things that might be deemed “boring” by today’s action-craved blockbuster audiences.)
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Taking place over the course of 20 some years, we follow Fawcett has he travels to the Amazon for three different trips (and a tour of duty fighting in France during World War I) – his obsession growing each time in an effort to find an advanced civilization deep within the jungle. Frustrated with his military service (Fawcett openly laments he has no medals), he volunteers for an expedition to Bolivia (financed by an organization run by a man played by Ian McDiarmid – a great reminder of one of the few bright spots of the Star Wars prequels).
There are also hints of The Mosquito Coast to be found in The Lost City of Z, the questions of what happens when the outside world invades established, unexplored cultures. The big difference here is Percy Fawcett isn’t a crazy person like Harrison Ford’s Allie Fox – and Fawcett certainly isn’t under the impression that anyone in the Amazon needs to be saved by white explorers. It’s the opposite.
On Fawcett’s first expedition, an exploration of a river for mapmaking purposes, he discovers advanced pottery. When he returns to England, his claims of a possible advanced civilization are dismissed. To them, the locals in South America are just “savages,” but Fawcett wants to prove his world wrong.
It’s here that Gray does something interesting with his film: He doesn’t scrutinize Fawcett’s intentions beyond the fact that he’s a lousy husband and father (leaving his wife, played by Sienna Miller, for years at a time, multiple times) and presents his mission as sincere, even though it’s an obsession. And Charlie Hunnam is outstanding as Fawcett and legitimately commands the screen. (The best decision Hunnam made was getting out of the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise. After a stilted performance in the stilted Pacific Rim, the last thing Hunnam needed was to enter into something like Fifty Shades of Grey. Sure, he probably could have lived the rest of his life off of the residuals, but career-wise, that may have been it. And in The Lost City of Z he really proves what he’s capable of doing.) But this isn’t a condemnation on Fawcett or the people he’s meeting in his explorations. It’s an interesting approach because it would be so easy to pick a side.
Fawcett’s right-hand man for his first two expeditions (for the last one, he brings his now-teenage son, played by Tom Holland) is Henry Costin, played by a heavily bearded Robert Pattinson. This is my favorite Pattinson performance because I kept forgetting it was Robert Pattinson. In his first few post-Twilight performances there was a sense that he was trying to prove himself as an actor. And that’s understandable. But here, he’s fades away into his character so well that I kept having to remind myself that it was him. That’s a good thing. (Bearded Robert Pattinson’s appearance has more in common with early ‘70s John Lennon than he does the guy who was in Twilight. This is a good look for him.)
The Lost City of Z unfortunately won’t be in theaters until April, but I hope it gets a strong push. I hope people see it. It’s a well-crafted film (by a director who has been working to get this movie made for seven years) starring two actors who may just change some perceptions about the both of them.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.