‘Mankind awaits our discoveries!” It takes a certain amount of arrogance to make that claim, which is why movies about explorers tend to be driven by larger-than-life characters.
Someone says that line in “The Lost City of Z,” yet this film takes a different approach to the usual adventure scenario. Its hero is no wild-eyed visionary, but a lost soul in search of legitimacy.
That hero is Percy Fawcett, a real-life Englishman who repeatedly ventured into the South American jungles in the early 20th century. Fawcett became convinced that a sophisticated civilization had once existed there, and kept trying to find evidence for what he called the “City of Z” (pronounced zed, like the British do).
The film is based on the nonfiction bestseller by David Grann, adapted and directed by James Gray. One sign of Gray’s low-simmer approach is the casting of Fawcett.
Think of how “Lawrence of Arabia” is defined by the charisma of Peter O’Toole, or how the jungle craziness of “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” is embodied by Klaus Kinski’s wild-eyed presence.
They were larger than life. But Charlie Hunnam, the capable but modest actor who plays Fawcett, is down to earth. That’s not a knock — I like Hunnam’s performance — but he doesn’t bowl you over with star power.
Hunnam’s Fawcett — who seems to be speaking in the voice of Daniel Day-Lewis — is driven by scientific curiosity, yes, but also by a chance to redeem his family name. He may have a supportive wife (Sienna Miller) and children (oldest son eventually played by Tom Holland, our newest Spider-Man), but he keeps finding excuses to traipse off to the Amazon.
Fawcett is accompanied on his journeys by a reliable companion played by heavy-bearded Robert Pattinson. He’s so passive he makes Hunnam look like Klaus Kinski.
All of which kind of works for the movie. I’m a sucker for explorer films, and this one has a humid, doomed atmosphere, as though the jungle had gone to everybody’s heads.
Director Gray is better known for intimate, self-serious dramas, and working on a bigger scale loosens him up. There are suspenseful scenes and pretentious touches, but the thing does cast a spell.
“Lost City” was shot on 35 millimeter film, a rarity in these days of digital lensing. You can tell, too; the jungle scenes look dense, as though you could reach your hand into the vine-covered trees. Given the presence of at least one cannibal tribe, this would be unwise — but don’t let that stop you from seeing the film.
“The Lost City of Z” (3 stars)
An account of the British explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), who went repeatedly into the Amazon jungles to prove the existence of a past civilization. James Gray’s film is laid-back in style, but it does cast a humid, doomed spell. With Robert Pattinson.
Rating: PG-13, for violence, subject matter
Showing: Everett Stadium, Meridian, Seven Gables, Thorton Place Stadium