Kurtz, the fabled central figure in “Heart of Darkness,” entered a primitive jungle world and made himself over into its homicidal master. His colonial malevolence was echoed in two landmark films of the ’70s: “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” in which Klaus Kinski’s bug-eyed, raving conquistador led a jungle odyssey into madness, and “Apocalypse Now,” in which Martin Sheen’s burnt-out assassin discovered, in Marlon Brando, a different kind of Kurtz — a philosopher of war’s evil, a leader who had gone “insane” only because he was the only one who saw Vietnam with utter clarity. But in “The Lost City of Z,” set within the British Empire during the early decades of the 20th century, the English explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) spends years seeking out the natives of the Amazonian jungle — and the mystery behind them — with a sense of purpose that is never less than high and mighty, progressive and noble. He’s a stiff-upper-lip adventurer-saint, enlightened in his thinking, driven by a personal quest that’s really a desire to heighten the spirit of mankind.
The movie was written and directed by James Gray, adapting David Grann’s 2009 nonfiction account of Fawcett and his expeditions, and Gray doesn’t shape Fawcett’s life into an overly tidy narrative; he lets it wind and sprawl. Fawcett starts off getting an assignment from hell by the British Army: In 1906, he is ordered to set sail for the jungles of Bolivia, where he’s to map out the border between that country and Brazil, a murky divide that’s leading to war. The British are driven by one motive (they want to protect their investments in the region’s rubber plantations), and Fawcett, an ambitious young major who has never seen combat, has a selfish priority of his own: His father was a drunk and a gambler, and the disgrace of that legacy has barred his entrance to the upper echelons of British military society. He’s promised that if he takes this mapping assignment and succeeds, he’ll be rewarded with a new status.
It’s a dicey tradeoff. Traveling up the Amazon on a raft along with his aide-de-camp, Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson, amusingly unrecognizable in a beard and spectacles that make him look he’s getting ready to star in “The Georges Bizet Story”), and a motley crew of assistants, including one South American slave, Willis (the superb Johann Myers), they are drifters in a hostile land, ducking showers of tribal arrows, subjected to starvation and disease. For about 20 minutes, the movie suggests “Apocalypse Now” redone as a “Masterpiece Theatre” episode. But the slave tells Fawcett about an ancient city that no white man has ever seen, and during a hike through the jungle, when Fawcett finds faces carved into trees and sophisticated pieces of tribal pottery, he decides that the promise of that lost civilization is no Atlantis/El Dorado myth. It really existed (and maybe still does), and it haunts him. He names the city “Zed,” and from that moment he’s driven to find it. He returns to England a celebrated explorer hero (victim-of-class-snobbery problem solved), but he wants to go back, and does. And then he goes back again.
“The Lost City of Z” is the story of an obsession. Yet Fawcett, as played by Charlie Hunnam, the 36-year-old British star of “Sons of Anarchy,” is a character driven only by the high-minded rapture of his ideals. Hunnam, wearing a prominent mustache, may remind you here of a handful of other prominent thespians. At various points, he exudes the twinkly moral intelligence of Daniel Day-Lewis, the slightly sullen earnestness of Michael Fassbender, and the quizzical anonymity of Ben Foster. He’s an accomplished actor, but he never brings a whisper of a dark side to Fawcett’s crusade.
I raise the issue because “The Lost City of Z” is a finely crafted, elegantly shot, sharply sincere movie that is more absorbing than powerful. It makes no major dramatic missteps, yet it could have used an added dimension — something to make the two-hour-and-20-minute running time feel like a transformative journey rather than an epic anecdotal crusade. As a filmmaker, James Gray (“The Immigrant”) has become such a critical darling that there’s now almost a cult of support for his work, and “The Lost City of Z” is destined to be hailed as another prestige addition to the Gray canon. Yet its popularity with audiences may prove more limited. The film is infused with Gray’s meticulous gravity, yet it also has his recessiveness — that feeling he can give you that you’re watching the action under glass.
Gray, as always, works with an elegantly muted visual palette (his favorite color: brown), and one can appreciate that his rhythm and style are a throwback to something you might call analog, or ’70s, or maybe just slow and deliberate. At moments, I’ve been a Gray fan (especially of “Two Lovers”), but it’s worth noting that the movies his style has at times recalled — the ambitious underworld films of the New Hollywood, say — were a lot more exciting, in their day, than the movies he makes. They never gave you the feeling that their directors were curating something.
“The Lost City of Z,” more than most of Gray’s films, is its own organic creation, and Gray catches the audience up in the fervor of Fawcett’s desire to locate that city and connect with the epiphany he’s seeking. After the first voyage, there’s an exciting scene where, aglow with his new mission, he gives a speech to the members of the Royal Geographical Society, of which he is now a member. He talks with religious exuberance about the artifacts he found and what they portend, as the white-haired fuddy-duddies in the audience jeer and mock him. What Fawcett is suggesting — that a “primitive” Amazon tribe might have had an advanced society that predated Europe — is nearly as radical as the theory of evolution. It undercuts the very premise of what it is to be an Englishman: the notion that they exist on a higher plane than “savages.” Fawcett realizes that he’s not just searching for the lost city of Zed, he’s — potentially — upending the meaning of Western Civilization. But at least one of the Society’s members wants to join him: a burly upstart named James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), whose bluster will soon come back to haunt him.
The jungle scenes are full of threat — tribes with their whizzing and slashing weapons, wild beasts, the muddy isolation of it all. But that’s balanced out by the cozy utopia of Fawcett’s home life. His wife, Nina, is played by Sienna Miller in one of the most warmly expressive performances of her career; she makes the character a vibrant feminist on the cutting edge of her time. Yet she’s also as relentlessly supportive of Percy as he is of his own mission. (Their only tiff is about whether she can come along with him on his second voyage; he wastes no time mansplaining why she can’t.) As the years go on, they have three children, and Percy is absent for much of their upbringing, but the film treats this as a humane sacrifice. The animating spirit of Hunnam’s performance is one of such benevolence that he might be playing a tender-souled gentleman out of Dickens.
At one point, Fawcett’s eldest son, Jack (Tom Holland), chastises him for his absences, but the two bury the hatchet and wind up going on a trek into the jungle together. The most haunting aspect of Percy Fawcett’s story is that he disappeared in the Amazon in 1925 and was never found. What happened? Gray is forced to imagine what happened, and this produces his strongest filmmaking. The movie culminates on a note of poetic doom that is strangely uplifting. Yet even this doesn’t change what we think about Fawcett. He is, to the end, pristine in his obsession, and that makes him a character it’s easier to revere than to love.