Big heart in a big jungle

The Lost City of Z

*** ½ out of 5 | 141 min. | PG-13


He was a real-life Indiana Jones. Literally. The Harrison Ford movie character was based on British explorer Percy Fawcett, a cartographer and archaeologist obsessed with the idea that remnants of a lost civilization were hidden in the Amazonian jungles. Fawcett disappeared in those jungles in 1925 on the last of many expeditions to prove his theory. What became of him remains a mystery.

Why isn’t Fawcett as well known as Ernest Shackleton or Amelia Earhart? His adventures in the early 20th century captured the public’s imagination in Europe and the United States, who followed via newspaper dispatches from the jungle. Yet somehow we’ve all but forgotten him. This is as mysterious as his disappearance.

The Lost City of Z remedies that. This isn’t an action movie but an adventure of the intellect and heart; it’s less about the science of mapmaking and the unraveling of forgotten history than about what drove the mapmaker and historian.

The talented filmmaker James Gray, who based his script on journalist David Grann’s 2009 book about Fawcett, retains his focus on character over plot, on the journey rather than the destination. It’s this weighty centering of storytelling that gives Z a genuine feel of freshness, import, and discovery.

It’s a teeny shame that Charlie Hunnam is a bit blah as Fawcett. There are a few riveting moments when he sells Fawcett’s passion, as when he returns to London from a Royal Geographic Society mission to map the border between Bolivia and Brazil, on fire with the conviction that the “green desert” of Amazonia was once home to a grand civilization that long predates the British empire. The Society members are appalled that he considers the “savages” he met in the jungle to be equals of white men capable of such a culture. In a speech to the Society he rages at their bigotry in a scene that made me whisper “wow” at Hunnam’s fierceness. But such moments are too few. Often, Robert Pattinson as Fawcett’s aide-de-camp creates a much stronger presence by just sitting quietly in the background.

Also noteworthy is the passion of Sienna Miller as Fawcett’s wife, Nina, who keeps getting left behind to raise their children when he goes off for years to South America. She would like to go with him, but he insists the jungle is no place for a woman. The film notices it’s not a place for all men, either.

As her husband heads off on what would be his final adventure, a tiny reverie sees her imagining herself walking into the jungle too.

Tender moments of visual poetry like these fuel The Lost City of Z’s undeniable power: of the dangerous beauty of the Amazon, the lure of the unknown, the draw of new friendships, which Fawcett constantly forges with those “savages.” Gray manages to make the exotic feel everyday. Perhaps that’s the best tribute to Fawcett here: that extraordinary new worlds and peoples become familiar to him and to us.