In the 1980s, one of the most reliable ways to Oscars glory was the sweeping historical epic/biopic (Gandhi, Out of Africa, The Last Emperor). Director James Gray (The Immigrant, Two Lovers) tries to breathe new life into the genre with The Lost City of Z, the story of British explorer Percy Fawcett’s efforts to find a legendary lost city in the Amazon in the early 20th century.
When the movie opens, Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is desperate to restore his family’s good name in British establishment after his father ruined it. He is offered a dangerous mapping expedition in Bolivia. While succeeding, he finds evidence of a lost city. It becomes an obsession and Fawcett keeps returning, frequently leaving behind his wife (Sienna Miller) and children. Even after being seriously injured in World War I, Fawcett returns yet again with his oldest son (Tom Holland).
On a visual level, the film succeeds. It’s consistently gorgeous thanks to Gray and cinematographer Darius Khondji. But just like most of the biopics it emulates, it struggles at times with pacing as it often leaps ahead years at a time in its 141-minute runtime. Because of the script’s choppiness, it feels like the story doesn’t have enough of a core to hold it together. For many, Fawcett’s endless willingness to leave his family for years at a time in pursuit of his quest may be hard to relate to or understand.
Despite its visual appeal and good performances by Hunnam and Robert Pattinson (as Fawcett’s right-hand man), The Lost City of Z is a sumptuous package without much inside.