The Lost City of Z: a high-end adventure from the good old days

Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson and Sienna Miller bring the old-school in James Gray's superior based-on-fact Amazonian adventure

The Lost City of Z
    
Director: James Gray
Cert: 15A
Genre: Adventure
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland
Running Time: 2 hrs 21 mins

Before he became the last of the Victorian explorers or the “David Livingstone of the Amazon”, Major Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) was a British officer stationed (and likely stranded) in Ireland without decoration, for, as one snoot in James Gray’s intriguing new picture puts it: “He’s been rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors.”

In 1906, when the Royal Geographical Society decided to send a “neutral party” to make a border map between Bolivia and Brazil, Fawcett jumped at the chance to survey the region and restore his family’s reputation.

Having recruited assorted adventurers and mercenaries (including a drunken corporal gamely essayed by Robert Pattinson) Fawcett's expedition, as depicted in this eagerly awaited adaptation of David Grann's historical travelogue, soon makes Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom look like, well, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The situation is precarious due to national rivalries, rubber-related commerce and the various natives – both human and animal – that live along the Amazon river.

Deep in Fawcett’s “green desert”, he and the surviving members of his party chance upon pieces of pottery and other possible indicators of a previously unknown, advanced civilisation. Upon the major’s return, he is the toast of London, yet his suggestion that a South American civilisation may predate his own is not universally popular in a nation of white colonisers. Nonetheless, the surveyor determines to prove his story, much to the chagrin of his long-suffering wife (Sienna Miller).


Writer-director James Gray, a great favourite with French auteur theorists and the Cannes Film Festival, can be a divisive Marmite flavour. The mannered performances, gushing emotions, and soapy arcs that characterise his works – tics that either bowl one over or curl one’s toes – work in favour of this awfully big adventure, with its parliamentary-style debates at dinner tables and lecture halls. In the great Gray tradition, there’s an earnestness in the performances of Charlie Hunnam and Tom Holland that could date to a bygone cinematic age.

At its best, and through the reliable lens of Darius Khondji (Seven, Evita, Amour), we're inevitably reminded of Werner Herzog's Amazonian masterpiece Aguirre, Wrath of God. An ocean away, Belfast locations make for a green and pleasant land. Sadly, despite a script that is achingly sympathetic toward Mrs Fawcett, the film – and indeed the adventurer – get rather stuck when at home with the wife.

Still, they don’t make them like this any more.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic