“THE LOST CITY OF Z” — 3 stars — Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland; PG-13 (violence, disturbing images, brief strong language and some nudity); in general release
“The Lost City of Z” is one of those movies that will remind you how good we have it in the 21st century.
“City of Z” is the true story of a British explorer who dedicated his life to finding a lost civilization in the Amazon. We meet Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) in 1906 as he’s building his military reputation and his family with his wife, Nina (Sienna Miller).
Without any wars to put medals on his chest, Fawcett feels unfulfilled, and he’s skeptical when the Royal Geographical Society enlists him to explore a disputed territory in South America that borders Bolivia and Brazil.
He’s even more skeptical when he meets his roustabout partner Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), but adventure comes in heavy supply as the pair set off with some native guides to find the source of a treacherous river. Resistance comes from the elements and what the boys back home refer to as savages, local natives who justify the explorers’ fears with surprise attacks from within the dark Amazon jungle.
At this point, “City of Z” gives the impression that the entire film is going to focus on the journey up the river, following in the footsteps of films like “Apocalypse Now” or Werner Herzog’s conquistador drama “Aguirre, the Wrath of God.” But Fawcett and company actually find the river’s source early on, and with it, enough broken bits of pottery to suggest the people who used to live there weren’t quite as savage as assumed.
So, rather than focus on a single trip, “City of Z” becomes the account of Fawcett’s repeated attempts to find the lost city he believes still exists somewhere in the depths of the jungle — the titular "City of Z." In a day and age where technology and air travel were in their infancy, such journeys were expected to carve years from a man’s life, if they didn’t take it altogether, and Fawcett encounters resistance from more than aggressive natives as he chases his quest.
The government in England is slow to consider the idea of the native people as anything but savages, and even those who are on his side prove undependable, as a benefactor named James Murray (Angus Macfadyen) joins one journey and nearly ruins it on his own.
In the meantime, Fawcett’s biggest conflict comes from his own family, as Nina struggles to raise their growing family alone while her husband is off in South America for years at a time. Fawcett’s son Jack (Tom Holland) is initially resentful of his father’s dogged devotion, but eventually comes around to the major’s way of thinking.
“City of Z” touches on a number of themes and raises several questions, all while keeping the audience embedded in a place, physically and metaphorically, where civilization wrestles with wilderness. Since director James Gray’s film is based on a true story (and adapted from a book by David Grann), some audiences may feel unsatisfied with “City of Z’s” largely ambiguous non-Hollywood ending, which feels content to leave certain issues unresolved.
But at least at a certain level, “City of Z” is fascinating to watch as a portal to a time when exploration felt as if it carried great mortal risk, justified or not. Nowadays, three wise-cracking British TV hosts can condense a journey up a jungle river to a two-hour special, and make the trip in a trio of past-their-prime sports cars. “City of Z” is an interesting reminder of the peril that made civilization possible.
“The Lost City of Z” is rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, brief strong language and some nudity; running time: 141 minutes.