“The filmmaking in James Gray’s The Lost City of Z is so overwhelming in its across-the-board virtuosity that the entire production could have probably survived performances that were merely adequate. But besides being woefully undervalued among modern moviegoers in general, Gray is also an adept and equally undervalued actor’s director who has drawn out layered and authentically lived-in characterizations from performers of all stripes, each one stitched seamlessly into the fabrics of his period and milieu-specific creations.
Gray’s latest, a panoramic, golden-hued historical drama chronicling the life and exploits of the hard-driving British explorer and officer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), is no exception, featuring invaluable and selfless character work from an extensive ensemble, including a bearded and barely recognizable Robert Pattinson, whose acting is largely undetectable as Fawcett’s sly right-hand man, Corporal Henry Costin. Exquisitely scaling back his own distinct presence, Pattinson finds grace notes of wry humor and warmth within a character who is never once allowed to seize the movie for himself yet manages to exude a fond and increasingly familiar personality that earns him a bittersweet farewell that Pattinson beautifully underplays. Meanwhile, Angus Macfadyen’s exceedingly manipulative biologist James Murray, who finds himself woefully underprepared for the grueling demands of an Amazonian expedition, could have been a figure of relentless, mustache-twirling slapstick and a character we’d have been more than happy to bid farewell to were it not for the actor’s praiseworthy refusal to play neither a villain nor a punching bag. Macfadyen ably captures the peacock posturing and haughty self-regard of a man of unseemly hubris, but it’s his psychological unraveling in the jungle that really impresses, evoking a feverish sense of desperation that isn’t just pitiful to witness but oddly haunting as well.
Of course, neither Macfadyen’s nor Pattinson’s interpretations might have existed in these exact forms were it not for the model set by Hunnam, whose utterly captivating star turn guides and grounds the efforts of every player who appears throughout the film. Hunnam has taken numerous and largely unsuccessful stabs at contemporary movie stardom throughout the decade, from Pacific Rim to this spring’s King Arthur, which may explain why The Lost City of Z comes as such a surprise to those who had all but given up on the actor. Here, Hunnam burns with the incandescent charisma of a classic matinee idol, his body a paragon of relaxed self-possession even as his eyes spark with the uncontainable energy of a man driven toward exalted ends that only he can envision. Hunnam’s quiet conviction anchors the movie that has been built around him, but his deviations from this stoic mode, those scarce and baldly emotional admissions of love and mortality, movingly set the stage for the ineffable conclusion of this rare and ambitious masterwork, whose gales of heartache can still be felt long after Fawcett’s dream has ceased to exist.” — Matthew Eng