In 2009, I read David Grann's The Lost City of Z on a friend's recommendation. An account of early 20th century British explorer Percy Fawcett and his attempts to find proof of an advanced prehistoric civilization in the Amazon rainforest, it's a real page-turner. With its depictions of personal obsession and colonialist folly, the story seemed a perfect fit for Werner Herzog, who had already covered similar territory, literally and figuratively, in his classic films Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo.
Yet Herzog was quizzically overlooked when Brad Pitt bought the screen rights to Grann's book, and American writer/director James Gray, whose five previous features were all set in New York, was tapped instead.
My entire review of The Lost City of Z boils down to this: I think Gray was the wrong choice for this material, and he took it in entirely the wrong direction.
I know I'm in the minority, as many critics have been gushing over this film. But understand that I had no biases about Gray, as I have not seen any of his earlier work, and I went to this film with great enthusiasm and confidence that Gray would take the right approach. Yet he captures neither the insanity of Fawcett's expeditions nor the thrill of exploration. His staging is claustrophobic: with a strange dearth of establishing shots, you will watch a scene for ten minutes only to see one of Fawcett's assistants or horses, presumably there the whole time, appear from out of nowhere. (It doesn't help that cinematographer Darius Khondji makes everything look hazy and yellow, whether we're in England or Bolivia.) And aside from a couple tense scenes with local tribespeople, there's none of the suspense that made Grann's book so irresistible.
Gray's dialogue is stiff, his pacing often glacial. He is so intent on making a stately prestige picture that he opts for reverence and sentimentality over darkness and complexity. In short, his movie is dull. And as Fawcett, English actor Charlie Hunnam makes a bland protagonist, all earnest gazes and stage-whispered line readings. He gives us no insight into Fawcett's character – not that Gray gave him much to work with, as the real Fawcett, a blustery incompetent with racist assumptions typical of his day, was softened for the film (and to a lesser extent the book), presented instead as a noble and tolerant thinker who was far ahead of his time. And don't get me started on Sienna Miller and Tom Holland as Fawcett's wife and son, both given preposterously modern attitudes.
Many other reviewers are getting a great deal out of The Lost City of Z, seeing it as a meditation on the mysteries of existence, the lure of nature in a time of war and greed, or whatnot. If I felt like I saw that film, I would say so. Herzogian fatalism is not required to tell Fawcett's story. But Gray's safe, solemn Hollywood approach does it no favors either.