Finally caught up with what many critics considered one of the great films—as well as one of the most unsung—of 2016, though it wasn’t released in the US until 2017. It was stunningly beautiful, slow but in the best sense, and the kind of film seldom made anymore. It “tells” the true story of South American explorer Percy Fawcett, a British explorer whose yearning for lost civilizations made him famous, put extraordinary pressures on his family, and may have cost him his life.
Writer/director James Gray (The Immigrant, We Own the Night) approaches his material like a modern-day David Lean, taking his time and not being afraid of painting on a large canvas. The images are often breathtaking, and remind home viewers like the author that watching certain films should be limited to seeing them in the theater. No home screen—no matter how large—could do justice to the images he creates and to the effect he is working to create.
Those images, too, are not just pretty pictures, but are part of the film’s total objective. For this is not the tale of an explorer—a specific person—as much as a story of exploration at a certain time in history, its highs and lows, and what an increasing drive to explore and discover can do. The camera stays at a distance throughout, keeping us viewing the lush greenery, majestic mountains, and groups of men working together, but also keeping us from a more sympathetic connection with our main character. We see what Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) goes through, and we alternately approve or judge this determined and flawed man, but we don’t get into his life. We view what happens, but just don’t connect with it.
Certainly this has to do with Gray’s long takes and camera distance, which keep the focus on the physical environment rather than the emotional journey of our main characters. The lack of connection may also have to do with Hunnam’s performance. This is the second film (the first being King Arthur: Legend of the Sword) that starred Hunnam and failed at the box office, delaying and perhaps halting his journey to dramatic leading man status. Hunnam, perhaps known best for television’s Sons of Anarchy and for having the good sense to walk away from Fifty Shades of Grey after landing the lead, was here directed to keep a slow pace and stay British. He reacts internally in many a scene that could have been more externally expressive. His only shouting is with his peers back in England, but it’s dignified and strong without being personally dramatic. Between the look of the film and Hunnam’s performance, it’s hard to be drawn into Fawcett’s own internal journey.
The big surprise is the fine work done by Robert Pattison, who with his co-star Kristen Stewart has done the near-impossible in throwing off the memory and stench of the Twilight vampire series. Both have shown themselves as capable of doing fine work recently. Pattison is almost unrecognizable beneath his beard and as a fine supporting character here—the most important in the film. Sienna Miller, fresh from playing the long-suffering wife whose husband is away for too long in American Sniper, here plays a long-suffering wife whose husband is away for too long. But there is a century of time between the parts, and this chameleon-like actress slips right into the early twentieth century while staying surprisingly progressive in her character’s thinking. Tom Holland (title role in Spider-Man: Homecoming) plays the “grown-up” version of Fawcett’s oldest son. Only 19 when the film was made, Holland, whose slight frame and young face worked for his character’s high school setting in the Spider-Man film, goes from looking quite younger than 19 to looking quite older than that—a feat for any actor, but especially for one so young.
Something that does begin to bring some dramatic excitement to the film is the surprise development of a villain, a fellow explorer named James Murray. This secondary story pumps some life into the film, but then ends up giving the film an imbalance as we boo and hiss this character and his outrageous actions, but are not allowed an equal connection with our purported hero. The film begins to veer off-kilter as this side story develops, but ultimately this subplot doesn’t derail it. But it does makes one wonder why the rest of the film couldn’t have been as emotionally engaging.
Gray has made a classic film in a classic style, and has evidently chosen to pull back from too much emotional connection with his main character. Some may complain that a little editing (it’s two hours and 21 minutes), a faster pace, and a more character-driven cinematic approach may have yielded a more popular film. That’s probably true, yet that would be another film entirely. But with a budget of $30 million and a take of just a little more than $8 million, it may be a while before we see something similar. And if we do, let’s choose to see it in a movie theater, where many beautiful and timeless, and yes, old-fashioned, films like this belong.