He was a man with an itch.
Englishman Percy Fawcett, played by Charlie Hunnam in “The Lost City of Z,” was in the thrall of a desire to go where no European had gone before. That would be the rainforest of Amazonia, where from 1906 onward, he journeyed again and again searching for the legendary city of the title, a place raised up by an indigenous civilization and then swallowed up by the jungle, leaving behind only rumors it ever existed.
Writer-director James Gray’s moody and speculative recounting of Fawcett’s restless adventuring attempts to get to the heart of what drove this man to repeatedly forsake the comforts of home and hearth, to leave his loving wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and his children, missing births and large chunks of their childhood. He gave them up for months, then years, of rafting on piranha-infested rivers, enduring stifling heat, scourges of insects, illness and the fear of being killed by native peoples, among them cannibal tribesmen.
Inspired by author David Grann’s 2009 nonfiction book of the same name, Gray’s “The Lost City of Z” presents Fawcett as a British army officer enticed by the Royal Geographic Society to embark on “a grand adventure” to map uncharted territory in what the stodgy society members call “a land of primitives” on the Brazilian-Colombian border. Once in the Amazon, he learns of the legend of the city he comes to call Z and becomes obsessed with tracking it down.
He’s a classic kind of adventurer, a man like his contemporary George Mallory, who died on Everest after several attempts to conquer the mountain. The lure of the unknown, of a quest that taxes a man to the utmost, physically and psychologically, is something such men find impossible to resist.
Gray, whose previous pictures include “Little Odessa” and “The Yards,” uses muted colors and dark imagery to tell this story. The jungle scenes, shot in the Colombian rainforest, convey an oppressive sense of an alien land where Fawcett and his teams of fellow explorers are unwelcome intruders.
Hunnam speaks in low tones, practically murmuring his lines in many scenes, which seem at odds with the underlying fierceness of Fawcett’s resolve. His manner is almost diffident, yet he’s steadfast in his purposefulness.
His steely nature comes through in scenes in which his wife and later his grown son Jack (Tom Holland) remonstrate with him over his long absences that have left his family feeling abandoned while he’s off adventuring. He’s taken aback and resentful of their criticisms, but as a man of his times, is unbending in his determination to pursue what he comes to see as his life’s mission. Later, Jack comes around to his side and joins his father on what turns out to be Fawcett’s final expedition, in 1925. They never return.
Gray concludes the picture with a speculative sequence portraying the ultimate outcome of that final expedition.
The Lost City of Z
☆☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Sienna Miller, Robert Pattinson, Tom Holland.
Director: James Gray.
Running time: 2:20.
Rated: PG-13, for violence, disturbing images, brief strong language and some nudity.