In one day I had the good fortune to see two of the New York Film Festival’s most talked about titles. One was the documentary that demanded two encore screenings, Hamilton’s America, which charts the history of Alexander Hamilton and the evolution of the musical that’s made him not only a resurrected American hero, but also the center of the biggest Broadway sensation in decades. The other was the festival’s closing night film: James Gray’s Lost City of Z, a biopic centered on the life and explorations of British colonel Percival Fawcett. And I mention this, because a quote from one helped shape my opinion of the other.
In Hamilton’s America, the Broadway show’s heralded director Thomas Kail explained the unique staging and casting of Hamilton by saying he wanted to get away from “the sepia tone” of history plays. He said this and looked to the unseen interviewer off camera with a moment of doubt, you could see that flash of “do you know what I mean?” And YES. Just as a sepia tone on a photo connotes to the viewer they are looking at some distant history, it can distance them from the story’s contemporary relevance. Sadly, The Lost City of Z is a film constructed of varying degrees of sepia, making this biopic about a brave (but arguably hypocritical) “hero” feel detached and bland.
Charlie Hunnam stars as Fawcett, a family man whose rise in the class ranks has been thwarted because of his dead drunk dad’s bad reputation. So when a 1905 assignment to map the Amazon gives him his last chance at glory, Fawcett readily leaves his wife (Sienna Miller doing her damndest with a nothing role) and child for years to go surveying. This trip is dangerous, studded with seedy slave owners, brutal terrain, territorial tribesmen, and flesh-craving piranhas. Yet at the end of his quest, Fawcett finds some fascinating artifacts that suggest these “savages” once had a mighty civilization of their own right. Well, wait til the white people of Britain hear about this!
The rest of the overlong film charts Fawcett’s fight to return to the Amazon again and again to search for the titular city he calls Zed (because British). But Gray takes for granted that Fawcett’s story is interesting, and blandsome Hunnam doesn’t have the kind of kinetic charisma that might spark this otherwise tedious tale. As he shouts down a room of rich white men about the dignity and ingenuity of the brown people in the jungle, it’s meant to feel rousing. But his message is antiquated; all this noble savage talk is no longer progressive but fucking offensive.
Gray tries to add a modern edge of social awareness to the film’s politics by stuffing Miller’s scenes with feminist flourishes. Her turn-of-the-century wife and mother talks about her wish to wear pants, how women can go into the jungle too, and that her husband shouldn’t brag about hardship until he’s shoved a baby out of his genitals. But all this builds is an arc that goes nowhere. It won’t be wifey Nina who goes to the jungle on his final journey. As soon as Fawcett’s first-born is old enough to grow a mustache, he ignores his wife—who has learned how to navigate by the stars and has vigorously studied the region in question—in favor of his baby-faced boy (Tom Holland).
The Lost City of Z is a trudge through one man’s hollow quest for glory, which he masquerades as a humanitarian effort. (Fawcett agonizes over others traversing into the jungle and destroying its integrity, but if he does it, it’s totally different, bro.) The film is painted in khaki, greys, and mud, with the emotional intelligence of a dried out carrot. However, there are bright spots.
Though the lip service to feminism is little more than set dressing, Miller is so intriguing and instantly charming, you might well hope the movie will follow her home to see the story of raising three children alone while your husband bounces around some far off jungle because honor. Holland, with his bright eyes and earnestness, is engaging as Fawcett’s impulsive son. I wondered how much more satisfying this film might have been if it focused on his and his father’s final trek to the Amazon instead of the tedium that lie before. Angus Macfadyen is a welcomed wild card as a fellow explorer who becomes an unexpected antagonist to Fawcett. Macfayden even manages to rustle the occasionally deliciously shady moment from Hunnam, giving our hero a flash of character outside of being dully noble. But the MVP of The Lost City of Z is Robert Pattinson.
The teen dream who’s been steadily digging into odder indie fare to prove his drama chops plays one of Fawcett’s earliest allies, a drunk with a die-hard attitude who makes the best of the dry dialogue in this dirge of a drama. “The jungle is hell,” Pattinson growls from behind a thick rank beard that hides his pretty boy face, “But one kind of likes it.” Even when he’s given nothing to do but play background element or reaction cutaway, the Twilight star’s eyes sparkle with a mad energy that gives this stodgy film a desperately needed sense of spontaneity and danger. While Hunnam fails to incite excitement, Pattison surely and solidly scratches away at the sleepy sepia of this too-solemn biopic.
To his credit, this intriguing ingendude has been carving an interesting career post Twilight, bounding from David Cronenberg’s menacing Cosmopolis to his scathing Hollywood satire Maps to the Stars, to David Michôd’s gritty drama The Rover. It’s a tough thing to go from young hunk to respected actor. But Pattison’s not going the DiCaprio route by refusing his alluring smile to fans to prove he’s a serious leading man. He’s going the Jude Law route, diving into roles that are ugly or costumes and make-ups that make him unrecognizable. He’s rejecting the bland hero roles for weirder leads or the juicy supporting roles, and in doing so emerges as a stellar character actor who steals this movie one drunken belch and shady rejoinder at a time.