Film review: Charlie Hunnam gives a career-best performance in The Lost City of Z

The film is based on a book of the same name, a biography of Percy Fawcett by New York writer David Grann.

Charlie Hunnam plays Percy Fawcett, an explorer in The Lost City of Z. He gives a performance that can be described as career-defining.  Aidan Monagha
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The Lost City of Z

Director: James Gray

Stars: Charlie Hunnam, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson

Four stars

British snobbery is the ugly undercurrent that haunts the life of Percival Fawcett in The Lost City of Z (pronounced zed, the British way), a jungle adventure with the trickiest of villains to depict on-screen: our own doubting subconscious.

Fans of Werner Herzog's films Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcaraldo will find many similarities between Klaus Kinski's characters in those films and The Lost City of Z's Percy Fawcett (played by Charlie Hunnam), in terms of how they are driven by a compulsion that often defies rational explanation.

The film is based on a book of the same name, a biography of Fawcett by New York writer David Grann. The explorer made his first trip to South America in 1906, when he was charged with mapping uncharted territory on the border of Brazil and Bolivia for the Royal Geographical Society.

Hunnam – best known for his roles as a rebel biker in TV drama Sons of Anarchy and a sea-monster hunter in Pacific Rim – delivers a nuanced, career-defining performance as the uptight, but upstanding, explorer.

Through small movements he manages to portray the inner turmoil and deep conviction that led Fawcett to repeatedly return to the Amazon, determined to find a lost city he believes will reveal a sophisticated civilisation that once existed in the forest.

At home in England, on that most aristocratic of British traditions – a fox hunt – we learn Fawcett is considered an outsider by the establishment because his father was an alcoholic gambler from the wrong background. That same establishment treats the very idea of a civilised Amazonian culture with disdain. Imperialist global viewpoints prevail.

It is an intriguing set-up as it paints Fawcett as an honourable explorer looking for enlightenment, rather than exploiter of other cultures. But is he a hero?

Author Grann’s portrayal of Fawcett as a great explorer has been much disputed – and Gray certainly shows us some of his foibles.

His trek in the Amazon is not without dangers – a local tribe shoot arrows at his team, for example – but his story is far from the swashbuckling adventures of Indiana Jones. The episodic structure can be repetitive and the deliberate, steady pacing is occasionally testing.

What director James Gray seems most interested in – as he was with his underrated Cannes Palme d'Or contender Two Lovers – is the personal cost of our decisions.

Where the Lost City of Z excels is not when Fawcett is in the jungles of South America, but when he's back in England with his wife Nina (a career-best performance from Sienna Miller) who has to cope with raising their children on her own, neglected by a husband who craves adventure.

Without overplaying the point, Gray shows how Fawcett’s failure to integrate into the upper echelons of British society is replicated by his failure to hold down a traditional family life.

His relationship with his eldest child (new Spider-Man Tom Holland) is especially on-point in its depiction of fathers as hero figures.

Robert Pattinson also pops up as a fellow explorer, another career choice seemingly designed to distance the actor far from his Twilight saga origins.

All in all, there is much to admire in this throwback to the best of epic Hollywood filmmaking in the 1970s.