The Lost City of Z is a handsome and ambitious historical epic, if also one that's more intellectually engaging than emotionally compelling.
In the year 1905, Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is a member of the British military who seeks to gain decorations and improve his own standing, as part of a larger effort to repair his legacy after his father ran the family name into the ground. Percy gets his chance to do just that when he is approached by the members of the Royal Geographic Society, including one Sir George Goldie (Ian McDiarmid), and offered a job - serving as the neutral third party who will map out the official border between Bolivia and Brazil - that is rather dangerous, but could prove very rewarding, should Percy succeed at it.
Accompanied by a group of fellow explorers that includes one Corporal Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), Percy sets out to South America and winds up venturing deep into the heart of the Amazon jungles, rivers and rainforests that reside there. Over the course of their journey, the group happens upon the remnants of what Percy believes to be an ancient civilization (a city that he dubs "Z", pronounced "Zed") deep in the jungle - a hidden place that Percy thereafter becomes obsessed with returning to, in the hope of proving to the world that it does, beyond the shadow of a doubt, exist.
The new film both written and directed by James Gray (Two Lovers, The Immigrant), The Lost City of Z adapts David Grann's 2009 non-fiction bestseller of the same name, into an old-fashioned cinematic journey into the heart of the jungle (both literal and figurative, here). Gray's adaptation brings the early 20th century world and Percy Fawcett's story to life in a steadily-paced manner that borders on being abstract and dreamlike at times; to the degree that it comes off as the modern arthouse film version of an Indiana Jones-style throwback adventure, and all which that implies. The Lost City of Z is a handsome and ambitious historical epic, if also one that's more intellectually engaging than emotionally compelling.
While Grann's source material paints Percy Fawcett's tale in a certain light (as implied by its subtitle, A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon), Gray's adaptation ultimately transforms the story into a parable about faith, spirituality and the human search for transcendence. Charlie Hunnam delivers one of his stronger performances to date as Mr. Fawcett in the film, selling the character's evolution from a younger man driven by simpler ambitions to a seasoned explorer whose obsession with finding the city of "Z" becomes more of a matter of belief than a quest for glory. Where The Lost of City struggles is to firmly connect the dots between the various stages of Percy's development as a character; at times, relying more on Hunnam's acting to sell Percy's convictions about the indigenous people and civilizations of Bolivia, without fully showing how he formed them.
The Lost City of Z similarly succeeds in streamlining the narrative of Grann's original book, covering a variety of subjects over its runtime - too many, at that. While Gray's movie starts out as a straightforward jungle adventure during its first act, it eventually spans around two decades' worth of time; touching upon everything from British classism to European racism, sexism and how global disillusionment in the wake of WWI fuels fan interest in Fawcett's expeditions. It's a lot of ground to cover and The Lost City of Z does a solid job on the whole, but (perhaps unsurprisingly) some of the issues it wrestles end up feeling like secondary thoughts that are forgotten, after a certain point in the film. As mentioned before, this makes The Lost City of Z more interesting as an intellectual exercise than a riveting cinematic experience, on the whole.
That being said, one area where The Lost City of Z unquestionably thrives is craftsmanship, in particular the cinematography by Darius Khondji (who also teamed up with Gray on The Immigrant and has become Woody Allen's frequent collaborator of late). The combination of Khondji and Gray's moody use of light and shadow, coupled with striking on-location compositions photographed in places such as Northern Ireland and Colombia, makes The Lost City of Z gorgeous to behold and worth seeing on the big screen for that reason alone. Much of the film's deliberate pacing comes from the editing style of John Axelrad (Gray's frequent collaborator), allowing The Lost City of Z to transition smoothly from scene to scene and further heightening the dream-esque temper of the film.
With Percy Fawcett's personal journey serving as the backbone of The Lost City of Z, the next best-developed character arc is given to Tom Holland as Percy's son, Jack; with Sienna Miller as Percy's wife, Nina, getting somewhat short-changed in the process. Nevertheless, both Holland and Miller further buoy their reputations as strong character actors with their work here, finding room to stand-out even as the spotlight remains fixed on Hunnam. The Lost City of Z's larger supporting cast includes a number of distinguished screen veterans too (Ian McDiarmid and Franco Nero among them), though the most memorable side player in the film is easily Robert Pattinson (and his impressive beard) as Percy's loyal and capable, if somewhat offbeat, fellow explorer, Henry Costin.
If something like Kong: Skull Island puts a modern blockbuster spin on the old-school jungle adventure movie formula for general audiences, then The Lost City of Z does something similar for the non-mainstream/indie arthouse filmgoing crowd. Both are worth appreciating in their own ways, but where some moviegoers may find Skull Island to be mostly dumb and loud, others might find The Lost City of Z to be too slow and pretentious, based on their own storytelling preferences. With that in mind: for those who are interested in a mood-heavy jungle expedition, The Lost City of Z is one journey into the unknown that could prove more rewarding than not for them.