"The Lost City of Z" tells the true story of a famed Edwardian explorer who spent years attempting to locate a mysterious civilization hidden deep in the Amazon rainforest. Unfortunately, he failed — at least as far as we know.
I don't mean to disparage the narrative grip of this handsomely made movie, which is adapted from a 2009 best-seller by David Grann. But it must be said, as consumer guidance, that the film offers none of the rousing cheap thrills that might have lured a blockbuster audience. (Although one shot, of a terrified explorer running toward the camera with angry natives chasing behind, seems closely modeled on a similar moment in "Raiders of the Lost Ark.")
There's no reason why the film should have to descend to the popcorn level, of course. Writer-director James Gray ("The Immigrant") is mostly concerned with the moral orientation of his protagonist, a celebrated English army officer and amateur archeologist named Percy Fawcett (played with charismatic gravity by Charlie Hunnam), and with the strictures of the long-vanished world that formed him. What sort of man, we're led to wonder, would repeatedly abandon his wife and children in order to embark on years-long expeditions into the sweltering South American jungle, in search of something that offers every indication of not existing? Fawcett tells an associate that he's doing it to expunge a stain on his family name (his father was an alcoholic wastrel), but that never seems an adequate explanation.
Fawcett is in some ways a very modern man, loudly condemning the institutional bigotry of his time. (His theory of an advanced civilization in the jungle is widely dismissed as an impossible attainment for indigenous people who are assumed to be ignorant savages and nothing more.) In addition, his wife, Nina (Sienna Miller, in top form once again), is a proto-feminist in a society where women are herded aside to watch while men debate serious issues in public assemblies. (The movie's overlong two-and-a-half-hour runtime affords considerable room for the airing of Nina's understandable resentments, which have a familiarity suggesting they've been imported into the picture from a time much closer to our own.)
In 1905, Fawcett is selected by the Royal Geographical Society to lead a surveying expedition to map the disputed border between Bolivia and Brazil. The vast territory is pocked with outposts of the European rubber trade, surrounded by tribes of sometimes hostile natives. Accompanied by a small group that includes his aide-de-camp, Henry Costin (a bearded Robert Pattinson, surprisingly effective), Fawcett hears talk of a hidden ancient city, and he finds pottery shards and a spooky face carved into a tree trunk that seem to confirm its existence.
Fawcett's party is plagued by bugs and snakes and bats, although not in ways that are especially memorable. (Grann's book mentions the explorer being nearly crushed to death by an anaconda — now that would be something to see.) Fawcett keeps returning home for more extended periods than we might like, but he's always drawn back to the Amazon, which is where we prefer to be as well. (This is the Age of Exploration: Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott both get name-checked, along with Rudyard Kipling, laureate of empire — and competition for discoveries is strong. Fawcett worries that others will find his "lost city" before he does.) There's a piranha attack and a hail of arrows from a river shore, and some extended unpleasantness with a treacherous financier (Angus Macfadyen) who's invited himself along on one of Fawcett's most arduous excursions. But just as things start to get interesting, Gray jerks Fawcett out of the jungle and sends him off to World War I, where we spend what I'd say is an unnecessary amount of time with him at the 1916 Battle of the Somme.
Fawcett set off on his final Amazon adventure in 1925, along with two other men, one his elder son, Jack (Tom Holland, the newly minted Spider-Man). Despite searches that continued into the 1990s, none of them were ever seen again, and so their fate in the movie's dreamy conclusion (beautifully shot by cinematographer Darius Khondji) is pure speculation. As the wrap-up to such a vividly detailed true-life tale, it's a bit of a letdown.