When I was 10 years old, my father sat me down to watch “The Godfather” (1972). I didn’t understand most of it, but I was old enough to grasp Dad’s intention in showing it to me, which was the emphasis on family. What I’ve discovered since then is that the importance of family is uniquely subjective, and therefore debatable.
Take Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) in “The Lost City of Z.” He’s “unfortunate in his choice of ancestors,” a British aristocrat tells us, yet Percy is steadfast in trying to resurrect his family’s besmirched name.
It’s the early 1900s in Great Britain, and Percy’s goal of advancement through military ranks has been rebuffed. He soon finds another path to redemption with the Royal Geographic Society, but there’s a catch: He must be away for years as he creates maps in South America.
By this time Percy already has a wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), and son, Jack. He leaves them behind, but has pregnant Nina’s blessing. This first voyage, accompanied by aide-de-camp Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), is a complete success. He gets the respect he craves. He charts the map along the Rio Verde River with aplomb. He returns a hero.
But it’s not enough for Percy. While in the Amazon, he saw signs of an ancient civilization and is determined to return to explore further. The hell with his family. Be damned with the dangers of the jungle, disease and savage locals. This is about legacy.
This is also where the central debate of the film comes into play.
On multiple occasions, Percy is gone for years at a time, all the while insisting that he’s doing it for his family. But how does it help his sons and daughter to grow up with an absentee father? Or his wife to raise the children on her own, essentially? He’s a role model for ambition and determination, but he’s missing out on his children growing up.
It’s a credit to writer/director James Gray (“We Own The Night”) that son Jack (Tom Holland) calls Percy out for being a void in his life. Perhaps surprisingly, Percy has the temerity to be offended by the teenage boy’s bluntness. In his mind, Percy is doing right by his family. It’s all subjective, remember, and don’t forget: The story takes place in a different time with different cultural values.
Mr. Hunnam is strong as Percy, a man with integrity who is brutally honest — except perhaps with himself. Ms. Miller tries to give Nina an inherent strength and understanding, and she succeeds as much as the script allows Nina to have it. And Mr. Pattinson — much like Kristen Stewart — is nicely putting the “Twilight” films behind him in yet another challenging role.
Mr. Gray’s dialog (based on the book by David Grann) isn’t always strong, at times sinking to feebly foreboding statements such as Percy being told, “Ain’t nobody comes back from there — ever,” as he’s about to travel the river for the first time. The line would have merit if the dangers of the journey weren’t already well established; by the time it comes, we don’t need a reminder.
But that’s a small gripe in an intriguing, epic-scale story (it covers about 20 years) with strong performances and quality costume and production designs. “The Lost City of Z” is a film you will admire, question and debate long after it’s over. And any movie that lingers with you like this has to have done something right. ¦