An Amazon Adventurer Is Weighed Down By Family Ties In 'Lost City of Z'

Apr 14, 2017
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. David Grann's bestselling book "The Lost City Of Z" told the story of Percy Fawcett, an English explorer determined to find the remains of a lost civilization in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. It's now a movie, written and directed by James Gray, starring Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson and Sienna Miller. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Given that civilization has permeated in one way or another, even the remotest parts of the planet, we should treasure the genre of James Gray's "The Lost City Of Z" - historical sagas of obsessive adventurers bent on either getting to the North or South Poles or finding the source of great rivers or making contact with indigenous peoples. This particular saga is set in the early 20th century in England and the Amazon rainforest, where its hero, Percy Fawcett, travels to map borders in order to forestall a war between different countries' rubber barons. Fawcett, who's played by Charlie Hunnam, was raised in the upper crust but has become persona non grata thanks to his father's financial misdeeds. He's unable to get a military commission, which means he's open to meeting with two elderly gents who oversee the Royal Geographic Society.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LOST CITY OF Z")

IAN MCDIARMID: (As Sir George Goldie) This is as good a map of Bolivia as we have. Most of it's blank, as you can see, nothing's really known about it at all. A land of primitives, but there are other plantations all over Amazonia - very profitable. There is now considerable argument between Bolivia and Brazil as to what constitutes their border. So fantastically high is the price rubber that war could arise. Do you follow?

CHARLIE HUNNAM: (As Percy Fawcett) I do, sir. Although, I'm not sure what this has to do with me.

MCDIARMID: (As Sir George Goldie) I'm getting to that. Neither country will accept mapping done by the other, so they've requested us to act as referee.

CLIVE FRANCIS: (As Sir John Scott Keltie) As you completed your mapping here with distinction, you came under our consideration.

HUNNAM: (As Percy Fawcett) I see. Sirs, may I speak candidly?

MCDIARMID: (As Sir George Goldie) Please.

HUNNAM: (As Percy Fawcett) My survey work was long ago. But to be quite honest, I was rather hoping for a position where I might see a fair bit of action.

MCDIARMID: (As Sir George Goldie) Major, this is far more than just survey work. This is exploration in the jungle. The environment's brutally difficult - terrible disease, murderous savages. The journey may well mean your life. At the very least, you will be gone for several years. But were you to succeed, such an undertaking could earn you soldierly decoration and even reclaim your family name.

EDELSTEIN: That's an odd scene, old men enticing a young man to take a job by promising him he could die, which would, by the way, leave his young children fatherless. But his family is also a reason to make the journey. Fawcett wants to give them a better life. It's in those perilous South American rainforests that he and his aide-de-camp Henry Costin, played by Robert Pattinson, learn the legend of Z, a supposedly magnificent lost city nestled somewhere amid the vines. Here I'll pause to say I feel funny saying Z when most of the characters are Brits and say zed. Their Britishness is worth emphasizing because once Fawcett and Costin return with news of the potential find, the aristocracy turns up its collective nose. Their rejection gives Fawcett an extra reason for resuming his hunt - to puncture the snubs. "The Lost City Of Z," or zed, is unusual for an obsessive adventurer movie.

The Fawcett depicted in David Grann's book became, over the years, consumed by his search, but for Director James Gray, family is a huge counterweight. Family ties are central to his other films - among them, "We Own The Night" and "The Immigrant" - and he doesn't seem to identify with his protagonist in the way of self-styled visionaries like Francis Ford Coppola in "Apocalypse Now" or Werner Herzog in "Aguirre, The Wrath Of God" and "Fitzcarraldo." Although Hunnam is likeable, the most vivid performance is by Sienna Miller as Fawcett's wife, Nina, who tries to accompany him and, failing, reminds him to be careful. The stick-in-the-mud spouse role is generally tiresome, but Miller gives it real force.

"The Lost City Of Z" doesn't have a clean, dramatic line, but it's beautifully made. It pulls you in and along. Robert Pattinson, behind a full beard and spectacles, helps give the river scenes a contemplative quality, somewhat like "Star Trek's" Spock. The air is filled with cacophonous bird calls and sounds that can't be identified or placed. Arrows fly out of the trees and kill members of the expedition, but the tribesmen, even the cannibalistic ones, seem less malevolent than ruled by the primal instincts that have kept them alive. They might feed you. They might eat you. You never know.

The family and expeditionary elements come together in the last scenes when Fawcett's son, Jack, played by Tom Holland, wants to get closer to his father and pushes him to return, with Jack in tow. The climax cements their connection to each other and the universe. And Gray invests the landscape with spirituality and a sense of mystery. It's both terrible and sublime. It's what we seek in historical adventure sagas - a celebration of ambition and a reminder of all we do not know.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. On Monday's show, the story of one of the most disturbing serial murder cases in American history but one that's largely forgotten. In 1923, the wealthiest people per capita in the world were the Osage Indian tribe in Oklahoma thanks to oil deposits on their land. David Grann tells us about the appalling series of serial murders that followed as local whites targeted the Osage for their money.

DAVID GRANN: Here was a population being systematically murdered one by one.

DAVIES: Grann's new book is "Killers Of The Flower Moon." Hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS THILE AND BRAD MEHLDAU'S "INDEPENDENCE DAY")

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(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS THILE AND BRAD MEHLDAU'S "INDEPENDENCE DAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.