There’s a wayward flavor to obsession, a feeling of being swept off one’s feet by some new passion. In James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, the expedition that began as Percy Fawcett’s chance to restore glory to his family name morphs into a lifelong zeal for exploration an discovery. Based on the book of the same name by David Grann, Gray’s film follows the life of British soldier Fawcett and his exploits throughout the Amazon rainforest. The film boasts expert performances, cinematography that conveys the paradoxical claustrophobia of the untamed jungle, and a plot that leaves the spectator insatiable, always hoping for additional revelations and understanding. Though the themes waver a bit and employ the noble savage stereotype to its full effect, The Lost City of Z beautifully surveys the spirit of adventure and obsession that consumes each and every one of us – in one way or another.
Set at the turn of the 20th century, Z begins in the classic doldrums of the Hero’s Journey, when our hero is still a nobody. Despite his excellent soldiery, Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) “has chosen his ancestors poorly”. He is passed up for every promotion, and his professional prospects are bleak. Then the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) conscripts him to settle a border dispute between Bolivia and Brazil by surveying a crucial river, a quest fraught with peril. In South America, Fawcett’s compatriots Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley) inform him that with war on the verge of breaking out, the journey has become too dangerous. Fawcett presses forth nonetheless, discovers the source of the river, and returns to England a hero.
I normally shy from a basic relaying of the plot, but with The Lost City of Z, this is merely a jumping off point. On this initial journey, Fawcett discovered artifacts and heard stories of a great city of gold, hidden deep in the jungle, a city he named Z. Fawcett’s hypothesis flies in the face of the dominant idea of the time that the Amazonian natives were mere jungle-dwelling savages incapable of any sophistication. Fawcett pledges his life in service of discovering this city of Z and proving once and for all that a lost Amazonian civilization thrived.
When the film traverses the jungle with Fawcett and his crew, the cinematography transports the spectator into the swelter. The frame of the camera is closed and tight on the explorers as they struggle through the foliage. Out on the river, they are exposed to piranhas and the arrows and darts of hostile natives, so the frame opens up and isolates the men on their boat. These choices are mirrored later in the film, whether that is in the hall of the RGS, a trench during the terrifying battles of World War I, or the open English countryside. It always feels like the framing and the composition of the shot has a purpose, giving the film a richness and a life of its own.
But the richest feature of The Lost City of Z is its treatment of the plot-theme. Exploration does not guarantee success; there’s a survivor bias to the stories of Magellan and Lewis & Clark, as we rarely get to learn the names of those who don’t return. But there’s a siren’s call to the men and women who wish to step into an unknown and steal understanding from the universe. The Lost City of Z champions these ideas magnificently. Fawcett and his compatriots are dogged pursuers of new ideas, and though they succeed slightly, for the most part they are only tantalized by inching up to the boundary of discovery before being forced back into the safety of civilization. A character late in the film expresses this theme perfectly, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp”.
Hunnam’s has certainly extended his reach through his portrayal of Fawcett, a role that was initially offered to Benedict Cumberbatch before a Doctor Strange scheduling conflict. Hunnam wanderlust dances on his face with such fervor that you understand why this man braves disease and danger, leaves his wife and children back home, and presses on again and again. Hunnam seems as possessed by the possibilities as is Fawcett.
Ancillary characters are given a similar power. Pattinson and Ashley are the perfect compatriots for Hunnam’s Fawcett, and two of the only men that can actually talk him into turning back when the danger grows too great. Angus MacFadyen (Braveheart) is a wonderfully pompous and plump weasel, and Ian McDiarmid (in his first feature role since the Star Wars prequels) adds a perfect little touch as the president of the RGS. Though Fawcett’s wife Nina is far too underwritten, Sienna Miller gives her a fierce tenderness that adds something to the film, especially when she treats the ambitions of her eldest son Jack (Spiderman) with the same respect she bestowed on her husband’s.
The Lost City of Z is not perfect. The film leans heavily on tropes, both the aged racist and sexist white Englishman who would never deign to consider that the “savage” natives were real humans, and also the well-worn “noble savage” who exists in harmony with nature and remains uncorrupted by the terrors of the modern world. Here, that terror is represented by Fawcett’s experience in the first World War, and the harmony with nature plays itself out in numerous details. It’s not “bad” or “wrong” for the story per se, but it does feel derivative and superficial in ways that the remainder of the film does not.
Still, as a dramatization of that quixotic drive to explore, adventure, and understand, The Lost City of Z is a triumph. Fawcett begins and a sadsack soldier with a shitty debt-ridden family name, until his imagination is spurred by the great mysteries of this world. Throughout his life, he was always drawn to the jungle, to his insatiable need to discover new things. And in his pursuit of this passion, Fawcett teaches us all to reach out just a bit farther.