James Gray is an American filmmaker from New York in his late forties. He’s notable because with this film he’s now directed six features, and four of which have been nominated for the Palme d’Or. It’s perhaps not as notable as being nominated for an Oscar that many times, but he’s had more international acclaim than domestic success.
He adapted this film from a book by a New York Times reporter. It tells the true-life story of a British explorer who became obsessed with finding evidence of civilization or a city in the Amazonian jungles of South America, specifically somewhere in the middle of Bolivia near Brazil. He’s mocked as being as foolish as the Spanish conquistadors who quixotically searched for El Dorado, aka the City of Gold.
Charlie Hunnam (Crimson Peak and Pacific Rim) stars as Percy Fawcett, a soldier in the army who is recruited to work for the Royal Geographical Society in London to help settle a border dispute. He’s enticed because it’s an opportunity for him to redeem his father’s name, which got disgraced because of his vices. He travels into the wild jungle and he is not deterred by the dangers. He’s unafraid. He keeps charging forward. Some could argue that he is like his father in that both have their addictions. It’s just that Percy’s addictions are in adventure and the Amazon, proving his theory of it.
He’s not an imperialist or anything at all like the conquistadors. He’s not out to seek his fortune. He’s not there out of ego unlike some, including James Murray, played by Angus Macfadyen. Unlike some, he’s also not beholden to bigoted ideas about the Amazonian tribes. He doesn’t call them savages for example. He’s an explorer in the purest sense. He’s not motivated by self-aggrandizement. He just wants to learn and expand knowledge. He’s like Indiana Jones. His only flaw is that he’s consumed with this specific exploration to the detriment of spending time with his family.
Plan B produced the film. Plan B is Oscar-winner Brad Pitt’s company. This role, as it went along spanning 20 years of Fawcett’s life, seemed like one Pitt himself could have easily portrayed. In fact, Pitt probably would have been better in the role. I have never been particularly taken with Hunnam or much impressed with him cinematically. I never enjoyed his TV series. Hunnam has been acting for 20 years and he hasn’t caught on like Pitt had in the first 20 or even his first 10 years. This film and this year might change that. He doesn’t quite have the charm or magnetism, but Hunnam did remind me a little of a young Brad Pitt.
Robert Pattison (Twilight and Cosmopolis) is unrecognizable as Henry Costin, the trusty companion of Percy, a long, thick-bearded explorer who’s dedicated to the cause. Sienna Miller (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and American Sniper) co-stars as Nina Fawcett, the wife of Percy who thankfully is more than just the long-suffering woman who waits at home, while the husband goes off into danger. She’s smart and has a strength to her to rival her husband’s.
Tom Holland (The Impossible and Captain America: Civil War) plays Jack Fawcett, the eldest son of Percy who at first blames his father for never being around. He eventually comes to see, ironically through a kind of blindness, how passionate his father is about his explorations. He even comes to share it. It’s not sharing in his father’s possible addiction. It’s him trying to reconcile with his father in a way.
As the film progresses, there isn’t a great sense of geography. We get that Percy has been to the Amazon several times and has become somewhat familiar with it. Yet, there’s still much he doesn’t know. The movie never distinguishes between the two. By the end of World War I, before he goes on his last trip into the jungle, it’s never sure what part of the land he’s yet not charted.
However, Gray does end his film on a final shot that is simply perfect. His previous film, The Immigrant similarly ended on a final shot that was perfect in its composition and emotional impact. That last shot in The Immigrant, I compared to the final shot in On the Waterfront in how powerful it was, mainly coupled with the devastating performance from Joaquin Phoenix. Gray doesn’t have that kind of knockout acting here, but like The Immigrant, his final shot here involves a character moving away from the camera into the somewhat unknown. It’s so well-framed and beautiful that it’s just as memorable a last image as one could hope.
Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, brief strong language and some nudity.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 21 mins.