Recently in my Flickcharters Facebook group, someone made reference to Sienna Miller in approximately this way: “Same thing happens for me every time with her. I always ask who that is, and then I always remember it’s Sienna Miller.”
The same thing might be said for another blandly attractive English actor, Charlie Hunnam, who consistently fails to be memorable as well.
That might lead a person to believe that James Gray's The Lost City of Z, which we’ve finally gotten here in Australia, is bland and boring. Instead, it elevates these two not very memorable actors who rather anachronistically continue to have careers. And in turn, they elevate it.
For some reason, I’ve always thought of Charlie Hunnam as “that British guy on Undeclared.” Do you remember that show? It aired in 2001-2002 and was kind of an outgrowth of Freaks and Geeks in terms of featuring many of the same cast and writers. It was a stepping stone on the path to stardom for Seth Rogen, and on the path to considerably less stardom for Jay Baruchel. In terms of the roles he’s been cast in, including a lead in two Guillermo del Toro movies and as King Arthur for Guy Ritchie, you could argue that Hunnam has done almost as well as Rogen. You’d be wrong, but you could argue it. Yet he’s really not made much of an impression. By now, I should think of Hunnam as something other than “the British guy on Undeclared.”
Miller is a similar example, though I think of her as “that British woman who dated Jude Law.” It’s been six years since she last dated Law, and more than a decade since their first coupling, the one that made her famous, ended. I suppose Miller probably would have had a career anyway without being on Law’s arm, and maybe it was more that she happened to be taking off at the same time she started dating him (hence why he started dating her). But her inability to make a distinctive mark on cinema has brought her sort of a nebulous status in the public's perception of her, and prevented her from breaking free of the shackles of being associated with Law.
It probably goes without saying that I have never found either actor to be particularly good. Competent, to be sure, but never more than that. Any time I’ve seen them on screen, I’ve always felt that the movie might have benefited from casting someone different in that role. (The one exception might be Hunnam in one of my all-time favorites, Children of Men, where he’s hidden behind a thicket of blonde dreadlocks. Someone else might have played that role, but I wouldn’t wish it because I wouldn’t change a (dreadlocked) hair on Children of Men’s head.)
Both actors appearing in The Lost City of Z struck me as a bad omen. And in truth, it took me at least 15 minutes to really get in stride with this movie, in part because of the Hunnam and Miller baggage I brought in with me. Hunnam looked like every outfit he was wearing was about two sizes too big, and with Miller I thought “Yet another time Sienna Miller has to play ‘the wife’ or ‘the girlfriend.’”
But The Lost City of Z, a movie that is kind of broken down into four separate and related short stories, worked on me by degrees. Both of these characters grew in dimension as the movie went on, and the actors’ performances grew with them. Hunnam started fitting into his outfits better, and Miller proved herself to only be superficially “the wife” – instead of just a narrative roadblock, she grew into a person, whose responses and reactions were genuinely unpredictable.
I won’t give you a point-by-point analysis of the ways these characters grow, the way they are both shaped by and help shape the narrative. I will say that the choice to live life as an explorer in the early 20th century was a sacrifice in equal measure for both of them. The prevailing sexism of the time casts all the glory on the man who went out and tried to expand the boundaries of the known world, who lost somewhere close to a whole decade of his life just in travel logistics – not unlike the space explorers in a string of movies we’re seeing now. But Percy Fawcett’s wife, Nina, played an equal role in that sacrifice, and not just because she was left with the job of raising their children all by herself. She sacrificed her husband the same way that he sacrificed his wife and children. And her Nina Fawcett was, at least as portrayed in this film, a forward-thinking woman who would have worn trousers if society had allowed her, and would have gone with Fawcett on his second trip to Bolivia if he hadn’t given in to society’s gender standards and nixed the idea.
The performances of these two actors become more emotionally powerful as the movies goes on, gradually over many scenes with Hunnam, and in one powerhouse finale by Miller. I’ll try to dance around what actually happens in the story, since I didn’t know myself when I saw it and I think that’s the best way to see it (if you haven’t already seen it). But Percy Fawcett’s development requires a lot more than bland handsomeness from Hunnam, and he conveys those changes compellingly, and Miller’s years of supportive sacrifice culminate in a speech that could never have been delivered by “just a pretty face.”
And now that I know that Hunnam and Miller are not just pretty faces, I’ll be interested to see where they go from here. And no longer will I wonder why they’re still working.