Released: April 2017
Director: James Gray
I feel I need to start this review with a disclaimer: I absolutely love Exploration Fawcett, the collected diaries and manuscripts of the man himself (and you can read my old review of the book here), as well as the Lost City of Z by David Grann, in which the author tries to follow in Fawcett’s footsteps and tells you of the explorers life as he goes. Tellingly, it is the latter book that is credited with being the basis for the film, rather than Fawcett’s own papers, although there are pieces of dialogue in the film lifted straight from his diaries. This love of the source material might have made me harder to please with this film than someone being told the extravagant tale for the first time, but I still find it hard to believe that others aren’t going to feel let down by this plodding and frankly boring film.
Fawcett’s story is one of escapades, hardship, sacrifice and the truly bizarre. His trips into the jungle in the books are painted with such detail as to make you yearn for the adventure and also as to make sure you never want to set foot in one either. The perils are both tiny and life-threatening, such as sweat bees that like to live in your eyes, and there is constant peril and death in the books, which is completely missing from the film. Sure, there’s a few shots of people with wounds or swollen bites, but nothing that comes near to giving the kind of horror that his own descriptions give. Somehow, despite telling one of the most exciting stories, this film feels flat. It gives equal emphasis to every event in his life, so the banalities of his time in the army and the surprise and weirdness of finding an opera being performed deep in the Amazon all gets the same evenhanded treatment, resulting in nothing leaving an impression or standing out.
It seems that The Lost City wants to be more of a biography of Fawcett than it does tell the tale of his expeditions. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but it then remains baffling that it also leaves out the most interesting parts of his personality and beliefs, which were, to be blunt, absolutely insane. He did not, despite the claims in the film, liberally believe in the abilities of the native population to have built cities and created civilisation in the jungle, but rather he thought it was the Atlanteans who had done so, thousands of years ago. He believed in psychometry, the ability of certain people to be able to ascertain the history on an object from the psychic energies it gave off. He did, undoubtedly, feel horror at the treatment of the native indians by the westerners taking root there, but his vicious take down of the whole rubber industry and the crooks running it is swept away, leaving generally nice feelings towards other people and none of the anger and defiance that really defined Fawcett. At the time, he was viewed as an eccentric, and many of the claims he made about things he saw in jungle were laughed at, from giant anacondas, which have still never been seen to grow as big as he claimed, to the more incredible two-nosed dogs and the cat-dog, both of which have since been discovered to exist. He was an interesting character, but that is not shown in this film, with his obsession with advancement, medals and respect of his peers and betters seeming to be his main motivations, things which are never exactly the most engaging characteristics in a leading man.
It doesn’t help that Charlie Hunnam is something of a charisma vacuum. He plays the part solidly, but with little flair, although to be fair to him, it may be that no one has the talent needed to enliven the script given to him. Sienna Miller puts in a bland performance as his left-behind wife, resigned to raising children that their father barely even met. The best actors in it do not get nearly enough to do, with Robert Pattinson playing loyal and dependable Henry Costin admirably. He has very few lines, but somehow exudes both mystery and reliability and leaves you wanting to know much more about his backstory than his role requires. Angus MacFadyen is also excellent as James Murray, and elevates his section to being the best part of the film. A fellow explorer, just back from the Antarctic, he comes along on Fawcett’s second mission only to find it wildly beyond his capabilities, and his behaviour puts everyone’s lives at risk. MacFadyen makes Murray by far the most interesting person in the film, with a wild-eyed performance that wouldn’t be out of place in a Heart of Darkness remake, a weak man completely unable to cope with the hardships of the jungle. Sadly, the film falls down around his wonderful performance as the dislikeable man, as there is little to suggest what the hardships actually are, leaving Murray’s inability to deal with them simply implying that either he is pathetically weak-willed or the difficulties must be hard, in some vague way.
There are other flaws shown up through it’s lack of focus on the actual expedition. At one point Fawcett tells his wife she cannot accompany him, as it is more than she could bear, listing reasons that sound dreadful, including maggots living under your skin- but why then, is this list of horrors never made real. You don’t have to show it, I’m not asking for a horror film, but even just to allude to such nastiness in the jungle scenes would bring it more to life. Somehow we are just meant to know from Hunnam set jaw line that he has endured hardship. Later, when someone is sent home from the trip, he is given their last horse to go with. However, we have just watched them travel up river on a raft for days, with no hint of horses or any land based support group. Where has this horse come from? What happened to their other ones? The lack of detail just leaves the whole thing as a shapeless mess. Similarly, what it chooses to show is often undefined. A large amount of time is spent showing him in the trenches of WWI. If this was then used to show how he came to despise so called “civilisation”, having seen the horrors it could bring, and to appreciate to subtleties and well-adaptedness of the “savages” he was dealing with, it may have been worth it, but it feels that just as soon as it is shown to us it is forgotten again, with no event really leaving it’s mark on the explorer. If his character isn’t to grow through film, why not just show the dramatic highlights of his trips?
A good film of Fawcett’s expeditions is possible, and I hope it still gets done. However, it needs to choose early on what story it wants to tell and focus on that. It’s no secret that Fawcett’s final expedition was lost, and indeed that hundreds of men have gone missing searching for him, never to be found, so the ending will always be tricky, but Expedition Fawcett is definitely still worth a shot. Until it comes out, give this fumbling biopic a miss and read either of the books instead.