Three stars. Rated PG-13, violence, disturbing images, nudity and brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.21.17
Toward the end of this ambitious historical drama, a key character observes that a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.
|As Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam, front) guides their boat ever deeper into uncharted|
Amazonian waters, his companions — from left, Manley (Edward Ashley), Murray
(Angus Macfadyen) and Costin (Robert Pattinson) — warily watch for unfriendly tribesmen.
Sadly, that’s precisely the case with director/scripter James Gray’s disappointing The Lost City of Z. He’s simply unable to wrap his arms around the enormity of this saga.
The film’s subject, Lt. Col. Percival Harrison Fawcett, certainly deserves to be brought to the attention of modern audiences. The early 20th century British geographer, artillery officer and explorer, most famous for his eight mapping and archaeological expeditions to Brazil’s Amazon region, was fictionalized by no less than Arthur Conan Doyle, in a series of Professor Challenger novels and short stories published between 1912 and ’29.
Much more recently, Fawcett is rumored to have inspired a certain Indiana Jones.
By all accounts, Fawcett took his work more seriously than these pop-culture counterparts, but that’s no excuse for Gray to deliver such a grim, dreary and bloodless depiction of the man’s exploratory career. Charlie Hunnam’s portrayal of Fawcett is withdrawn and stoic; even the man’s moments of triumph feel muted, as if Hunnam can’t figure out how to depict genuine excitement.
His Fawcett simply isn’t very interesting.
This can’t be Hunnam’s fault; he has demonstrated plenty of charisma and thespic talent in projects that range from his lead role in 2002’s Nicholas Nickleby, to his popular Jax Teller in TV’s Sons of Anarchy. The blame for Hunnam’s subdued performance here belongs fully to Gray, who obviously wished Fawcett to be presented in what often seems a trance-like state.
Actually, much of the film feels like a fever dream, thanks in great part to Darius Khondji’s shimmering cinematography and Christopher Spelman’s understated, almost hypnotic orchestral score. Both contribute to the film’s atmosphere of surreal obsession: a Joseph Conrad/Heart of Darkness tone that was captured far better by Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now) and Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo).
Despite Gray’s passive depiction of Fawcett, at least we learn something about the man, and what drives him ... although it could be argued that our knowledge mostly springs from what we observe during his interactions with his progressive wife, Nina, played with spunk and effervescence by Sienna Miller. She gives the film some desperately needed emotional vigor.
Fawcett’s two closest friends and companions — Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley) — remain one-dimensional ciphers. We know nothing about them: where they come from; what prompts them to join Fawcett, and subsequently remain at his side; what they do in between expeditions. It’s as if they have no lives except when plonked into a raft with their leader.
Costin appears to share Fawcett’s cartographic curiosity and passion, but I’ve no idea what motivates Manley. He’s always alongside the others, but has the allure of wallpaper.
We meet Fawcett in 1905, in Cork, Ireland, where the young major trains members of the British Army. He smarts under the unforgiving class structure that inhibits his career, thanks to the legacy of a disgraced and alcoholic father who apparently gambled away the family fortune and (perhaps) title. (The script remains maddeningly vague on this point.)
Fawcett desires a campaign — an assignment — that might enhance his stature among the snobbish aristocrats who may be his social superiors, but definitely are his intellectual inferiors. Salvation comes unexpectedly: a commission from London’s Royal Geographical Society (RGS), which has been asked to clarify the border between Brazil and Bolivia, in order to prevent a possible war that might imperil the region’s numerous rubber plantations. (Then, as now: Follow the money.)
Starting in July 1906, Fawcett and newly acquired surveying partner Costin lead a mission through the Amazon rainforest in order to fulfill this RGS obligation, while also tracing the Rio Verde to its origins. Along the way, Fawcett grows ever more intrigued by their encounters with the so-called “uncivilized” tribes along the way that have, in many cases, developed unexpectedly complex cultures.
Even more tantalizing, he finds artifacts that suggest the long-ago existence of a much larger and highly sophisticated culture: a great “vanished” South American civilization that he dubs the “Lost City of Z.”
Fawcett’s presentation of these findings to an assembled audience of RGS members, upon returning to London, is one of the few times that Gray’s film bursts into life. The contrast between Fawcett’s progressive views, and the institutional racism and arrogance shown by most Society members, is breathtaking: an uncomfortable reminder of the condescending British imperialism that dominated, exploited and ruined so many countries and cultures up through the mid-20th century.
But Fawcett is resolute, and determined to prove the existence of his “City of Z.” He gains the backing for a second expedition: this one in the company of explorer/biologist James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), recently returned from a successful Antarctic mission with Ernest Shackleton. Murray’s resourcefulness in frozen climes notwithstanding, he’s wholly unprepared for the heat, humidity and grueling conditions of the Amazon.
The resulting confrontations between Fawcett and Murray paint the latter as a petulant, selfish and unpleasant bellyacher, whose behavior quickly threatens the others. Macfadyen’s performance makes the man thoroughly loathsome, and it’s frankly refreshing to have a character — even a disagreeable one — who stokes our emotional boiler.
The portrayal could be considered character assassination — Murray being another actual figure — except that the historical record seems to bear out his mean-spirited and thoroughly contemptible behavior.
At the same time, I find it sad that this becomes the most intriguing interpersonal dynamic — between a couple of white guys — during the various expeditions depicted during this film. It would have been far better to see more of the relationship that develops, during the first expedition, between Fawcett and the group’s resourceful native guide (Pedro Coello, as Tadjui).
And while it’s nice to see numerous examples of the respect with which Fawcett treats the many indigenous tribes, we get little evidence of the harsh Amazonian environment itself. Encounters with dangerous critters are confined to brief glimpses of one snake, one panther and a grimly efficient school of piranhas; there’s no sign of the many equally dangerous insects and other beasties.
More than once, Costin is shown to have nasty welts and abrasions that apparently heal themselves, rather than becoming infected; if Fawcett and his comrades ever succumb to malaria — or any other diseases — such incidents remain off-camera, and all concerned obviously survive. Everybody seems able to deal with the heat, humidity and thick jungle growth (although, yes, the occasional hostile tribes are another matter).
Despite a running time of 141 minutes, Gray’s film remains maddeningly superficial, presenting only the briefest sense of Fawcett’s missions; a detour to his World War I service has considerably more dramatic impact. The pacing also is agonizingly s-l-o-w, Gray too frequently holding on thoughtful expressions or pregnant pauses between brief snippets of conversation. We keep hoping that Gray will kick things into a higher gear.
Pattinson’s tendency to mumble doesn’t help; many of his lines are unintelligible.
Gray’s script is adapted from David Grann’s well-received 2009 non-fiction book, The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. Bowing to big-screen constraints, the film depicts only three of Fawcett’s eight expeditions, and Gray takes serious liberties with the final one, adding a spiritual coda more in keeping with the film’s surreal tone, than probable fact. This, too, is frustrating.
Fawcett deserves much, much better. As initially pitched, this film would have starred Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch: a pairing that certainly would have delivered better emotional gravitas. But the bigger problem is that 141 minutes — particularly these 141 minutes — are insufficient to depict Fawcett’s amazing career with the proper depth and respect.