There are really two movies at work in James Gray’s “The Lost City of Z.”
One unfolds in the well-appointed parlors, bucolic fields and imposing halls of turn-of-the-last-century England.
The other plays out in a world of daunting jungles, piranha-infested rivers and unpredictable Amazonian cannibals.
Holding those two realities together is the real-life figure of Percy Fawcett, an Englishman who embodied his era’s spirit of discovery, scientific exploration and a seemingly superhuman need to experience physical challenges and personal perils.
“The Lost City of Z” (the Z is pronounced “zed,” Brit-style) is the most expansive, grandest vision of writer/director Gray’s career (“Little Odessa,” “The Yards,” “The Immigrant”), achieving at times the sweep of a David Lean epic.
And as is the case with Lean, it sometimes seems that the epic overpowers the human elements.
We first meet Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam, about 180 degrees away from his biker Hamlet in cable’s “The Sons of Anarchy”) as a struggling young military officer whose prospects are limited, in the words of one aristocratic snob, because he has been “rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors.”
Fawcett gets a shot at fame and glory when he’s asked by the Royal Geographic Society to travel to the Amazon to prevent a war. Seems the Bolivians and the Brazilians cannot agree on an official border between their two nations; Fawcett is to survey the impenetrable jungle and set a boundary that will ensure the peace.
Accompanied by his equally adventurous assistant, Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson in full beard mode), the two not only accomplish their mission but stumble across tantalizing evidence that somewhere deep in the wilderness are the ruins of a centuries-old city, a metropolis that would have been bigger and more sophisticated than anything in Europe at that time.
Returning to Britain a national hero, Fawcett touts his belief in the lost city, leading to accusations that he has fallen for an “El Dorado”-type myth. That attitude is as much racist as it is scientific . . . Fawcett’s belief that the Amazon Indians once had a world-class civilization doesn’t go down well with imperialists who embrace the white man’s duty to raise and/or exploit the world’s great unwashed.
The lost city becomes Fawcett’s quixotic obsession. In rare domestic moments he appears to be a good husband (Sienna Miller plays the Missus as an independent proto-feminist) and father. Yet when he’s not away for years at a time traipsing through the jungle, he’s planning his next adventure. Not surprisingly, this breeds domestic resentments.
Fawcett and Costin’s second trip to the Amazon is less successful. Their colleague, Arctic explorer James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), turns out to be a wiz at fundraising but a liability on the trail, succumbing to paranoia, jungle fevers and flat out greed (he raids the group’s limited food supplies to satisfy his own hunger).
Eventually Fawcett will put the delusional Murray on a horse aimed at the nearest settlement, a decision that will generate much fallout when Fawcet and Costin are forced by lack of supplies to return to England.
After a grim interlude in the trenches of World War I, Fawcett mounts what he hopes will be his penultimate exploration, this time accompanied by his now grown son Jack (Tom Holland). The upshot will be one of exploration’s great mysteries.
Superbly photographed by Darius Khondji (“Delicatessen,” “Stealing Beauty,” “Evita,” “Midnight in Paris”), “The Lost City . . .” is an unhurried, immersive experience that allows the viewer to share in the awesome visual beauty of the jungle and the dangers that seem to lie around every bend in the river.
Arrow-shooting Indians, man-eating fish, poisonous snakes, rain, heat, jungle maladies that eat at a man from the inside out . . . there are moments here when you feel you can reach out and grasp the sticky heat.
If the people sometimes seem less vivid than their surroundings . . . well, they’re only human.