Charlie Hunnam is the star of two films in theaters now; The Lost City of Z from last April and King Arthur: Legend of The Sword which debuted the second weekend of May. I had the fortune of seeing both of these films and can say that while each left me feeling mixed, they represent unique sides of Hollywood. It’s for that reason that I want to examine how Charlie Hunnam performs in these two vastly different films and the consequences of his casting.
The Lost City of Z is a film based on the life of Percy Fawcett in the turn of the 20th century. Fawcett, played by Charlie Hunnam, is a British explorer who is motivated by his desire for honor. This motivation shifts into a love for the jungle and compassion for the people who flourish there. Right off the bat, this is a beautiful film. The filmmakers had a really difficult task of pulling off a distinct time period, only based on text and photographs, from a world that simply doesn’t exist anymore. They absolutely nailed it. Historical accuracy in a film is a very touchy subject for me and sits at the core of why I struggle with non-fiction film. It is inherently dishonest to show real events as if any of the filmmakers know who the characters were and what their time period was like. On the flip side, most often the best stories come from real life and it would be a shame to never see them adapted. In a scene near the beginning of the third act, Fawcett is lecturing to a room of distinguished British gentlemen. He tells them the people of the Amazon aren’t savages, and the room erupts as if they all witnessed a murder. This is an extremely reductionist and pretentious way of looking back to a hundred years before our time. I don’t doubt that this could have been the outlook in Fawcett’s day, but to present this scene with almost no nuance and create such a black and white exchange removed me from the meaning of the scene; that Fawcett was a brave man who valued his word over his image. This is a fantastic character arc because he overcomes his initial desire for acceptance in pursuit of what becomes his greatest passion. I’m not outright saying the film was dishonest, I’m simply being skeptical of what seems like several instances of artistic license.
It’s worth noting that this film was based on a book from 2009, which allows me to trust the filmmakers more but not enough to give the movie a full pass. Fawcett himself was very slender with dark hair and disheveled facial hair. Hunnam is stocky with a boulder for a jaw, blonde, and sports a neatly kept goatee. Often times he looked like the only person not really on the expedition. In the filmmaker’s defense, Hunnam wasn’t the original Fawcett. The film was spearheaded by Brad Pitt who planned on having his production company produce the film and he gave himself the Fawcett roll (a very Brad Pitt move to say the least). Pitt dropped out and was replaced by Benedict Cumberbatch, who I think would have blown this role out of the water. Not only does Cumberbatch already resemble Fawcett, but he has the acting chops to truly convey who he might have been and draw a large audience to see it. Cumberbatch then dropped out and was replaced by Hunnam, causing my view of Hunnam and the filmmakers to shift. His casting was out of necessity rather than historical accuracy. Despite this, Hunnam puts in a solid performance and communicates a solid emotional core for the story.
As fleshed out as Percy Fawcett feels, he is undeniably idealized. He has few flaws, the greatest being his passion for the jungle which still keeps him very likable. Fawcett being played by Hunnam is interesting because he is by far the principal star in the cast. However, he doesn’t have the fame of a Pitt or Cumberbatch and unfortunately for Lost City and King Arthur, this could easily have been their biggest miss step. The only star with similar name-power is Robert Pattinson of Twilight infamy. I want to heavily commend Pattinson. His performance was easily my favorite of the film and showed a very high level of acting. Several times he is given screen time with little to no lines and he manages to convey everything he needs to with just a look. It wasn’t until midway through the second act that I even realized it was him. As far as the rest of the cast goes, no name will be recognizable to the average movie goer. The rest of the cast is made up of character actors and this is not only to the film’s benefit but also a very conscious choice. Each actor owns their role because even when they are vaguely recognizable, the character they play dominates the familiarity. For example, a villain-like character is James Murray played by Angus Macfadyen. He’s not a name you’d recognize but like most character actors he’s had small roles in dozens of projects that you have seen. It wasn’t until after my viewing that I found out I’d seen him other places. This lack of fame mixed with strong writing forced me to see Macfadyen as James Murray. As a result, I hated the guy like he had actually harmed me. I adore The Lost City for its ability to make me care about its characters, and much of that praise goes to the casting and acting. In addition, the film looks great, director James Gray did a phenomenal job of creating a world that can never be explored again. The artistic decisions could easily have slowed the film down or removed the audience. For me, they only served to strengthen the world of the film and highlight the emotions of the main characters.
The other film, and one you probably have heard of is King Arthur: Legend of The Sword. This fantasy epic, directed by Guy Ritchie, is a retelling of the classic story of Arthur pulling the sword from the stone and becoming king. While both of these films are technically based on historical figures, The Lost City cares much more about where it comes from while King Arthur has its focus on the spectacle over the content. This is a perfectly fine decision as far as I’m concerned. The legend of King Arthur is just that, a legend. In that respect, King Arthur becomes a fascinating milestone in the history of folklore. To think that we have this legend thanks to a handful of writings from the fifth and sixth century, and that story has been passed down and grown in oral retellings, creative literature, and more recently film is a really fascinating evolution of a single story. It’s safe to say that this version could only exist now and that alone gives this movie more meaning than it deserves. The film follows Charlie Hunnam again, first as a toddler and eventually to him as the King of England. The most enjoyable part of the movie for me was the characters. This is an impressive cast from the top down and not one actor puts in a poor performance. Jude Law, in particular, stole the film thanks in large part to the depth of his character. Very few characters have the depth of the protagonist and antagonist outside of who they care about. The strongest scenes involved characters sacrificing and suffering for one another, and that element impacted me simply because I projected my own relationships into the characters. The movie is relying on you having family and friends to make you care about people in the film. This is a cheap move, one akin to killing a dog to prove somebody is evil. In addition, the writing was so weak that I genuinely cannot remember a line from this film. While the dialogue didn’t bother me in the theater, it’s entirely unmemorable to show the main focus of this movie was the image.
Interestingly enough, Guy Ritchie actually leaves more of a visual mark in King Arthur than James Gray in Lost City, but even that is to the detriment of the film. King Arthur, unfortunately, does not look like Ritchie’s last film, Man From U.N.C.L.E, but resembles his 2009 and 2011 installments of Sherlock Holmes. It’s shocking how similar Ritchie’s adaption of Sherlock Holmes looks to his King Arthur adaptation. Both franchises fluctuate between drab gray exteriors and warm teal interiors. This color scheme is fine and has been the foundation of the color for many of my favorite films, such as Drive. But here, Ritchie is unable to do anything interesting with this contrast he creates by keeping the two colors separate. As a result, most of the time each movie looks gray and muddled and then overly warm in between set pieces.
Sherlock Holmes interior
King Arthur interior
Sherlock Holmes exterior
King Arthur exterior
King Arthur gets a lot of points visually for having more color, however, and that is mostly attributable to the location. Much of the film was shot in Scotland and Wales, and that decision is one of the best made by Ritchie. Unfortunately, that expense wasn’t spent on the smaller sets and quickly fades behind the plot and characters. While discussing how this movie looks, I have to commend it for the lighting. Dozens of times in my viewing I was blown away how well the scene was lit, both during interior and exterior scenes. If you have any idea how a dramatic production is lit and want to see it done to perfection only then can I recommend this movie.
Currently, both of these films are on target not to make their studio’s money back. Lost City had a production budget of around $30 million and is currently sitting worldwide just below $13 million. This is a loss, but it should be taken into account. Lost City was backed by Amazon, meaning they own the rights to this film. The film has gotten rave reviews and earned back plenty of money before being available for Amazon Prime users. To offer a well-reviewed film to their platform could result in a significant boost of subscribers. Netflix doesn’t give their productions theatrical releases the way Amazon does, meaning that $13 million is simply a huge bonus. The marketing for this film reflects this. I saw absolutely zero promotion for this film, I only went to see it thanks to a recommendation from a friend. Amazon spent very little and got a huge bang for their buck. They now have a great movie they can offer their subscribers and made millions back on the theatrical release. Meanwhile on the other end of the spectrum is King Arthur. This film somehow cost $175 million to produce. That doesn’t even include marketing, which this film had a lot of. As a general rule with big budget movies, the marketing cost is usually on par with the production budget. According to “The Numbers”, nobody was making money on this movie until they passed the $550 million mark. Over three weekends later, the film has left the gestation period with only $120 million worldwide. That is a catastrophic flop, and it can’t be understated how big of a miscalculation this was for Warner Brothers. The reason this film exists is the exact same reason it is a failure: money. Big medieval movies are around now because of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves which made huge money in the summer of 1991 during Kevin Costner’s peak. Dozens of medieval films followed. It wasn’t until the early 2000’s that The Lord of The Rings movies proved you could make medieval franchises earning a billion dollars a movie. More specifically, the story of King Arthur has been told back in 2004. With a better cast and smaller budget, it made four times its production cost. That film was simply a proof of concept for a major franchise that will now never come to fruition.
Where King Arthur fails compared to those more successful movies is its lack of respect for the source material and poor casting. The film looks and feels like a generic action movie that got reskinned into the fantasy genre. Nothing here is unique or interesting. It feels a lot like they took every element from Lord of The Rings and retooled them to fit a different story. What you end up with is a disjointed puzzle full of non-compatible pieces. Even with this major flaw, the movie could have done well. Lots of films have taken this approach of making an action movie to the tune of everything else around it. Where King Arthur needed a boost was casting. A great comparison is the Robin Hood story, one that has been adapted into film over 20 times since the early 1900’s. The most recent version came out in 2010, titled Robin Hood, and suffered from much of the same problems as King Arthur did. Fortunately, they made money thanks to the notoriety of Russell Crowe. That brings us to the big problem with King Arthur: Charlie Hunnam. If you approach the film looking for quality, Hunnam is a non-issue. He doesn’t shine or carry the film by any means, rather he does an above average job. But this film was made to make money. The film wasn’t a passion project for Ritchie like Martin Scorsese’s flop Silence was. This film was designed to make money and launch five more films just like it that would all make even more money. When you approach King Arthur from that perspective, Hunnam was a terrible pick. I don’t know anyone who would go see a movie because Hunnam is in the cast. Unless you are a big fan of Sons of Anarchy, odds are Hunnam isn’t enticing you to head down to your local theater.
Each director, James Grey and Guy Ritchie, sets out to make very different films. Grey was sent his source material eight years ago and told to develop an adaptation. Ritchie signed on to produce a six-film franchise. Each made the decision to cast Charlie Hunnam as their lead for different reasons, and each got a similarly solid performance. I can’t remember the last time an actor was prominently in two different movies in theaters at the same time, but fans of that actor end up split between the two. Hopefully, Warner Brothers will learn a lesson with the failure of King Arthur, and other studios will take notice. In 2018, another Robin Hood installment is set to release from another British director; Otto Bathurst. The funniest part is the cast, with the lead being played by Taron Egerton, recent star of the new Kingsman franchise. History is doomed to repeat itself with the casting of a quality British actor with even less fame than Hunnam. Hopefully, it’s good.