Director James Grey has been quietly creating an impressive body of work for the last two decades, but his latest movie is his magnum opus.
Since 1994’s “Little Odessa,” Grey has told intimate tales often about hard-working people in unique situations. There was ex-con Leo Handler (Mark Wahlberg) in the corrupt world of the Queens rail yard in “The Yards” (2000). Or Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard), forced into a life of burlesque dancing in “The Immigrant” (2013).
But in “The Lost City of Z,” Grey ups his game and tells an epic story that explores big dreams and the sacrifices that come with them.
If the title of the movie (out in limited release April 14 — it will go nationwide April 21 and on Amazon later this year) sounds familiar, that’s because it’s based on the popular 2009 David Grann nonfiction book “The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon.” In it, Grann recounts the life of Percey Fawcett, a British explorer who in 1925 went into the Amazon jungle with his son to find an ancient lost city he believed existed and never returned. The legend of the city that Fawcett named “Z” is well-known in the expedition community. As many as 100 people have died or disappeared searching for Fawcett or the city he was obsessed with.
Grey has taken Grann’s book (which also recounts the author’s own journey to find Z), and brings Fawcett and his journey to life with such rich detail, you’ll feel the sweat of the jungle yourself. That’s thank in part to the stunning photography by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Darius Khondji and the talents of production designer Jean-Vincent Puzos.
Charlie Hunnam (“Sons of Anarchy”) plays Fawcett as a man who’s driven to make a name for his family in an era when class and legacy are everything, and who finds stardom as an explorer. Robert Pattinson is at his side as Fawcett’s soft-spoken but equally driven aide-de-camp Henry Costin.
Both give incredible performances. It’s the best one yet for Pattinson. His brooding stares are perfect for a character who basically must toil in the horrific conditions of the Amazon (at one point half his face is infected by a bug bite).
Hunnam, meanwhile, is an incredible talent who, thanks to some lousy movies, has been largely missed by a wider audience. Here he gives a tour-de-force performance that proves his leading-man capabilities. He carries this movie on his back with an intensity that is a joy to watch. He’s sensitive and kind in some instances, ferocious in others.
It should be noted that the movie is close to two and a half hours long, but it requires every second. To properly tell Fawcett’s journey (and make you fully understand his obsession with Z), we need to follow most of his adult life — starting in the early 1900s when he was a cartographer in Brazil, then one of his first journeys to find Z only to be held back, his fighting in World War I, and lastly his fatal final journey to find Z with his son, Jack (played by the new Spider-Man, Tom Holland).
The lengthy running time is also needed to delve into Fawcett’s home life with his wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), and growing family. In another movie, this part would be omitted or stripped to brief moments, but Grey details Nina’s struggles as she deals with Fawcett going off to explore and leaving her to care for the children on her own. Still, she champions him, even at one point pleading to go with him.
If there’s a movie so far this year you need to see on the big screen, it’s this one. Its rich story, performances, and lush visuals should be taken all in at the theatre, where you can fully immerse yourself.
Then go see it again. I plan to.
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