In telling the true story of early 20th Century British explorer Percy Fawcett, writer and director James Gray can’t overcome one particular component of this would-be adventure tale: real life.
While Fawcett travelled to and from uncharted regions in South America over the course of decades including a final time with his son following a stint serving in World War II, Gray struggles to maintain a compelling pace and exciting story. There is strong acting by Charlie Hunnam as the intrepid explorer, there is a beautiful colour palette that looks like how we think the early 20th century felt, but this film, coming in far too long at two hours and 20 minutes, leaves you wanting more and wondering why a cinematic chronicle was undertaken.
That’s because at times this is an adventure tale, at times it’s a family drama, at others it’s about political and judicial maneuvering, and for about 15 minutes or so, it’s a war film. And while each of these factors individually may be compelling – and they all feature dramatic speeches by Hunnan – they don’t work well together whatsoever. Simply, there is too much story.
The expeditions are compelling: aided by an assistant Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) who would join him on later quests and battles, Percy and company battle natives, rapids, disease, thirst, and famine. However, despite the long runtime, there isn’t enough time spent in the jungle. Expeditions are hashed out in England, then the group finds themselves on the water and amid the trees only to return to London again. The viewer doesn’t come close to feeling as threatened or disheartened as the characters do when venturing on untouched soil.
It’s unfortunate too as The Lost City of Z, named after the fabled site Fawcett doggedly searched for his entire life, has potential in its source material. Navigating the wilderness proved tough indeed, but navigating a story that switches settings and tones and conflicts so frequently seemed beyond the grasp of Gray and others. Sienna Miller plays Fawcett’s wife at home, alternatively supportive of and against his travels. His kids grow up and too oscillate between in favour or and protesting their father. One expedition sees a financier turn cowardly, resulting in a hearing back home.
All of this makes for a film that zigs and zags seemingly at random, unable to maintain the power of its themes and handle the heart of its hero. What should otherwise be a stirring ending resolves itself to be simply a welcome conclusion in a film that isn’t sure what it’s done or where it wants to go.