The Lost City of Z (Amazon Studios, PG-13)

Hunnam has not unfairly been dubbed “Charlie Humdrum” for his inexpressive performance in this film.

Films celebrating colonial heroics used to be a staple of the movie industry. It’s not hard to understand why: They offer tales of manly men fighting for righteous causes and/or seeking splendid treasure in in exotic settings, while reassuring white audiences they are truly born to rule the world. This trick is harder to pull off today, since many people have been raised to respect cultures other than their own, and are also aware of the sorry history of predation conducted in the name of empire. That’s good news for the world at large but bad news for filmmakers, since no one has yet come up with a cinematic substitute for thrills of colonial exploration and conquest.

That, in a nutshell, is the problem with James Gray’s The Lost City of Z. It’s a biopic of the British adventurer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), who spent much of his adult life searching for the ruins of an ancient city he believed had existed in the Brazilian jungle. Fawcett, born in 1867, was a soldier in the British army and conducted his explorations in the service of the British Empire, yet Gray wants us to believe that he was really a good guy with modern views who respected the peoples whose territories he kept invading. Gray also wants us to believe that Fawcett’s primary motivation was not to make a big name for himself or acquire additional wealth and power for his country, but to vindicate those very tribes that keep chucking spears at his expeditionary parties.

In Gray’s version, Fawcett wants to find the lost city in order to prove the so-called primitive tribes inhabiting the region had once created a Western-style city with permanent architecture, and thus were not so primitive as the learned minds of Europe believed. Sorry, but it just won’t do, and such token gestures toward cultural sensitivity are just window dressing intended to make viewers feel better about being tempted to identify with a colonial hero.

The Lost City of Z is also handicapped by the limitations of its lead actor. Hunnam, who has not unfairly been dubbed “Charlie Humdrum” for his inexpressive performance in this film, has neither the divine madness of a Klaus Kinski nor the splendid cheesiness of a Charlton Heston. Instead, he’s just boring from start to finish, an overaged Tintin who changes not at all over the 141 minutes of this film. Robert Pattinson, almost unrecognizable behind a mound of facial hair, creates a much more complex character as Fawcett’s faithful companion, Henry Costin. So does Sienna Miller in a fairly thankless role as Fawcett’s wife, Nina. At one point she tries to impress upon him that she is more than breeding stock, but he quickly mansplains her back into her place as his loyal servant and sperm vessel. Even so minor a character as the arch-colonialist Sir George Goldie (Ian McDiarmid), who sends Fawcett off on his first South American expedition, is far more memorable than Fawcett.

The screenplay for The Lost City of Z, written by Gray from a book by David Grann, falls prey to the biopic temptation of trying to present a comprehensive life story rather than focusing on a key event or sequence of events. There’s an segment set during World War I that could easily have been omitted, for instance, and I can’t for the life of me understand what Gray thought he was doing by including a silly scene involving a fortune teller. Some other scenes are effective but unnecessary, including one in which Percy’s party comes across an opera house in the midst of the jungle. We get it, Gray has seen Fitzcarraldo, but that particular scene is a prime example of the sort of darling that a writer/director needs to kill for the sake of the whole.

Darius Khondji’s cinematography is the strongest aspect of The Lost City of Z, and at its best his work is truly splendid, particularly the location shooting in Columbia. Even this aspect of the film is not as effective as it might be, however, as the frequent use of close framings and abrupt cuts undermine the viewer’s chance to bask in the majesty of the tropical jungle. A soundtrack made up largely of Western classical music adds to the feeling of majesty in the jungle scenes, but also strikes a colonialist note, as if to say that such scenes of natural wonder can only be appreciated through the lens of Western civilization.

In the final accounting, The Lost City of Z is a curate’s egg, with some good parts that can’t salvage the rottenness of the whole. It’s an adventure story with no adventure, a heroic tale with no hero, and a very long afternoon at the movies without nearly enough in the way of a payoff. | Sarah Boslaugh

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