You never know what director will get the spirit of old-time adventure. James Gray's Lost City of Zed (to use the film's pronunciation) reminded me of Bob Rafelson's Mountains of the Moon in its presentation of a classical exploration story by an unexpected source. But Gray has been moving in this direction at least chronologically, The Immigrant taking place in a roughly contemporary period. He's adapted David Grann's best-seller about Percy Fawcett (Charlie "your next King Arthur" Hunnam), the Englishman who searched South America for evidence of an ancient Amazon civilization. Originally a mere cartographer, Fawcett gets hints from the testimony of natives and scattered pottery that there was more civilization in the jungle than most of his contemporaries were willing to believe. In this account, Fawcett clearly sees his hoped-for discovery as the way to make his name after lagging behind his peers and never winning a medal in the military. In old-school heroic mode, he's willing to leave his family behind for years at a time to pursue knowledge and glory. While his wife (Sienna Miller) is Penelope-loyal, angry only that she never gets to go on any of his expeditions, his eldest son (Tom "your next Spider-Man" Holland) resents the old man's abandonment of them until the Battle of the Somme teaches him to appreciate pater's heroism. Zed is probably too episodic for its own good, breaking down into a sequence of feuds, first (and briefly) with the stodgy unbelievers in the Royal Geographic Society, then with tagalong James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), a former colleague of Ernest Shackleton who isn't up to the rigors of the Amazon and proves treacherous when sent home, and then with his boy, who reconciles in time to go with our hero on his final expedition. The Fawcetts' fate remains unknown and in Zed Gray leaves things ambiguous. We last see father and son drugged up and borne to some tribal ritual that could be anything from human sacrifice to adoption into the tribe, and in an epilogue Mrs. F. receives an artifact hinting strongly that Percy reached his goal after all -- as modern research suggests was possible insofar as there does appear to have been a somewhat advanced civilization in the vicinity once upon a time.
Visually Zed is nicely done, with Gray well aided by cinematographer Darius Khondji. The filmmakers acquit themselves equally well in jungle darkness, the musty interiors of Edwardian England and the Somme. Christopher Spelman's score leans a little too heavily on Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe for its own good, and throws in some Rite of Spring for extra measure. Charlie Hunnam doesn't exactly age well -- I should say convincingly -- in the lead role but does convey the force of Fawcett's personality, and he's supported by a solid ensemble, including an almost unrecognizable Robert Pattinson as Fawcett's sidekick for most of the picture, a hissably pathetic Angus Macfadyen as Murray and our old friend Franco Nero in a one-scene "Special Appearance" that shows that the great man can still make an impression. Ultimately I doubt whether Zed does much to distinguish itself among other exploration epics, though I feel more generous toward it than those critics who hold it to an impossible standard set by Werner Herzog's films -- but then again, to judge by the fate of that Gertrude Bell biopic, Herzog himself gets held to that same unfair standard. Gray's film is neither especially strong as a character study nor particularly visionary in its exploration of Fawcett's world -- Embrace of the Serpent leaves it in the dust -- but it's a solid piece of cinematic craftsmanship on a subject of enough inherent interest to make the Grann book popular and the Gray film worth a look.