As a huge fan of David Grann's book about Amazonian exploration in the last days of the British empire, I was worried. Would they CGI a magic mummy into the movie? But it quickly becomes clear that director James Gray—with Grann's collusion as screenwriter—has gone the other way. As a stoically competent, almost resignedly conventional drama, The Lost City of Z has no hope of matching the blazing vitality of the book. In fact, Gray seems to make a show of not trying to, reducing the story's folkloric proportions with stiff period costumes, somber conversations, and dreary colors.
In 1905, a child watches in awe as his father, Major Percy Fawcett, hunts with his hounds. Fawcett promises he'll take the boy hunting one day. Grann's readers know that he will, and for something much greater than venison. In his book, the New Yorker staff writer traced the path of Fawcett, a prodigious explorer who vanished, with his son, Jack, in 1924, while searching for the remnants of a pre-European civilization he becomes convinced once existed in the Amazon. He calls it Zed.
The film finds a tidy three-act structure in Fawcett's three expeditions, and a tidy moral in his progressive idea, which upturned the day's scientific condescension toward indigenous peoples. But it doesn't find a way to dramatize a historical figure with outsize charisma at the center of a rich historical fabric. It feels more like Indiana Jones taking itself seriously, which makes its heroic colonialism, drawn with such critical nuance in Grann's book, unappealing.
In a time when men's mustaches were very droopy and women's hat brims were very round, Fawcett moves through a courtly milieu, but his access hangs on his personal valor, not his pedigree. "He's been rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors," one snooty tux snips to another. When the British army orders Fawcett to the border of Bolivia and Brazil, with the mission of charting the Rio Verde and the insinuation that doing so will redeem his family name, he leaves his actual family and embarks by boat, train, maybe yak—I zoned out until the requisite but stirring recitation from Kipling's "The Explorer."
Fawcett's companions on the river are Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), a few ethnically varied arrow-catchers, and an indigenous guide whom Gray reverently films while he says "Nan-ay ooh-ah ooh-ah" and points at things. After Fawcett finds some pottery shards in the jungle, this staunch champion of civilization overturns his mainstream Eurocentric views in an instant. When he starts making high-minded speeches at Royal Geographical Society meetings, he is jeered for giving "savages," whom he now calls "natives," too much credit.
Other than Murray, the grandstanding dilettante who causes so much trouble on the second expedition, much of the film's conflict involves the party being chased on and off its raft. Slow scenes of meetings with local rubber barons and men mumbling almost inaudibly by firelight are punctuated by hectic little conflicts. The natives are shooting arrows again! But Manley charms them with his concertina and Fawcett wrangles a dinner invitation. But they're cannibals! But Fawcett doesn't really mind.
Before the fateful third trip to the jungle, when Jack rather abruptly becomes a proper character, Fawcett has a traumatic stint in World War I. The trenches are filmed as antiseptically as the jungle, which should be a living, all-encompassing antagonist (arrow attacks are easier to photograph than Amazonian super-maggots). Instead, the jungle is trapped in narrow, leafy frames that might as well be office-park woods, with the wide shots of the river often neutralized by a dusty yellow filter.
Ultimately, we're just not given enough reason to believe in or care about these bland, didactic characters. In the book, it was easy to see why Grann and many others have followed Fawcett into the unknown: he was magnetic, a polymath of incredible contradictions and energies—like the bright flare of a bulb just before it burned out, as the Western map closed over the whole world. But actor Charlie Hunnam is not larger than life; his Fawcett is monotonously pious. "We've been so arrogant, so contemptuous," he remarks upon finding crops growing in the jungle. "Well, that's what you've been saying," Costin replies.
It sure is. Fawcett's ethnographic awakening and his love for his family, established in a flawlessly generic happy-family vignette, are all he ever wants to talk about. The film toys with the idea of his drive as a destructive obsession but clearly admires him for it. The contributions of his wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), are barely portrayed, until she takes on Fawcett's obsession after he vanishes with her son. Nina kept searching for them until her death in 1954, as others would after her, lured by the mythic stride of Fawcett and the mystery of Z.
It's not that a film can't capture this madly inspired, dangerously lush milieu—Werner Herzog, who receives a brief opera-in-the-jungle nod, did. But filmmaking this staid and characterizations this schematic can't. The shallowness of the arc makes the movie seem overawed by one white man's budding consciousness. Even Fawcett falls prey to Hollywood's knack for rendering ordinary stories remarkable and remarkable stories ordinary.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Stumble in the Jungle."