It takes a seeker to capture a seeker — and maybe to puzzle over what, exactly, is being sought. That’s a fancy way of saying that James Gray might be the perfect director to tell the story of Colonel Percy Fawcett, an Englishman who, between 1906 and 1925, journeyed time and again to the jungles of Brazil in search of a vanished civilization.
Fawcett called it “the city of Z,” and as to whether he found it, you can look up his story online via Wikipedia or the 2005 New Yorker article that led to the book on which the new movie is based. Or you can see the movie itself, which raises more questions than it answers but is a beautiful and oddly distant thing. The film opens with a haunting image — dark figures lit up by firelight on the banks of a river — that hints that certain matters, certain meanings in the world, will always remain just out of reach.
In movies like “We Own the Night” (2007), “Two Lovers” (2008), and “The Immigrant” (2013) — the last is one of the very finest films of the young century — Gray has staked out the turf of a brooder and a poet, telling stories of doomed romanticism in urban environments. A perfectionist and a craftsman, too, if not exactly lighthearted company. You don’t go to a James Gray movie for the laughs.
But the filmmaker seems to have recognized in Fawcett — played by Charlie Hunnam over two decades of struggle — a fellow believer, and “The Lost City of Z” comes most alive when Fawcett is hot on the trail of his dream city, up the Amazon as arrows come raining down.
The real Fawcett made eight journeys to South America; the movie condenses them to three and charts, with grave sympathy, the hero’s evolution from Edwardian stiffneck to seeker of the Grail. At first, Percy’s a young army officer and surveyor desperate to rescue the family name from a deadbeat father; he sees an assignment to map the borders between Brazil, Bolivia, and Peru as a chance to win personal glory. Leaving his wife, Nina (Sienna Miller) — herself a cool and capable customer who, in a later era, might have led her own expeditions — and their young children behind. Fawcett journeys into the wild with the full confidence of an Englishman certain he owns the planet.
The planet does not agree. This first voyage is humbling, but Fawcett finds shards of evidence that a great civilization might once have stood there. He returns to London and the scorn of a scientific community convinced there can be no civilization that isn’t British. The second journey, then, becomes a search not for glory but for proof.
We think we know where stories about naive Europeans traipsing through the New World are headed — toward mania and disaster. Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, The Wrath of God” (1972) is the acknowledged masterpiece in the genre. But even as “The Lost City of Z” charts one setback after another, serves up death by disease and by piranha, and dramatizes how the lordliest of men (Angus Macfadyen as Fawcett’s backer and fellow explorer Sir James Murray) can be transformed by the jungle into the most dangerous of fools, Gray keeps faith with his hero’s cracked vision all the way to its third and final evolution, into a selfless and nearly religious search for transcendence itself.
This isn’t about romanticizing the tribespeople of the Amazon rain forest as savage children, although Gray at times comes close. Rather “The Lost City of Z” is a parable of how the urge for imperial conquest turned at the dawn of the 20th century toward a quest for inner meaning, in one explorer and in Western society as a whole. (World War I, which makes a cameo appearance here, certainly helped.)
The movie is 141 minutes long but you rarely feel its weight; that’s how confident a filmmaker Gray has become. All “The Lost City of Z” lacks is a great leading actor, someone magnificent and flawed like a Peter O’Toole. Hunnam gives a fine performance that is life-size and the slightest bit fussy; he’s a very proper dreamer. Some have suggested that Robert Pattinson, who plays Fawcett’s trusted second in command, Henry Costin, under a Smith Brothers beard, might have made a stronger Fawcett, but then we’d have to lose his Costin, which is a taciturn delight.
It may be that a story like this is bound to disappoint, because it’s the search, rather than the searched for, that becomes the hero’s obsession. Most movies view that as a calamity and the fastest route to hell. Gray is among the first to suggest that it might exalt you all the way up to heaven.
THE LOST CITY OF Z
Written and directed by James Gray, based on a book by David Grann. Starring Charlie Hunnam, Sienna Miller, Robert Pattinson, Tom Holland. At Kendall Square. 141 minutes. PG-13 (violence, disturbing images, brief strong language, some nudity).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.