One of the first things that makes The Lost City of Z’s explorer hero Major Percival Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) so immediately memorable is that he has a real sense of humour. Not just the unflappably snarky one-liners so often possessed by these sorts of characters, but a disarmingly warm and charming knack for jokes and silliness, the un-commonality of which amongst adventure heroes I didn’t realise until seeing Fawcett quietly mock stuffy old society men with his beloved wife Nina (Sienna Miller). It’s a refreshing and original touch in a film that has much, much more where that came from, spinning a classic Boys Own yarn into something much deeper and smarter.
Fawcett was the last of the great British explorers, charged by the governments of Bolivia and Brazil to chart a river crucial to the drawing of the border between the two countries. For Fawcett, not only will this quest be a grand adventure, but the head of the Royal Geographic Society (played by Ian McDiarmid) assures him that it will restore Fawcett’s sullied family name. Such motivations appear dated now, but writer-director James Gray presents them with such sincerity and insight that it’s impossible to not root for Fawcett to succeed.
Naturally, the story of this expedition is one steeped in the ugliness of colonialism and imperialism, and Gray doesn’t shy away from this fact. We see the complete cultures of the Amazonian natives, not just the mystical ‘noble savage’ archetypes more common to this genre, which lends an additional, understated, power to the scenes of the casual racist dehumanisation of these peoples. Fawcett is one of the few white men to comprehend that civilisation exists outside of Eurasia, even before he discovers archaeological remains that he believes belong to an ancient and lost city of ‘gold and maize’, which he dubs Z.
Searching for this city engulfed Fawcett’s life, and his various treks through the jungle with his delightful aide de camp Henry Costin (a very low-key Robert Pattinson) are easily as mentally taxing as they are physically arduous. We see snatches of evidence for Z, though whether they’re all in Fawcett’s mind is left ambiguous, and Hunnam puts in a subtly fantastic star turn as this near-incomprehensibly driven man. The family he leaves behind also get plenty of screen time, and these home front sequences are generally the film’s most powerful, with Fawcett’s initial abandonment of them immediately heartbreaking only 10 minutes into the film.
That this power can’t consistently sustain itself is a shame, because when The Lost City of Z goes for the heart, it hits hard, but there are lengthy quiet stretches that value intellectual over emotional engagement. Questions of mankind’s place in both the natural world and our own history are raised and tackled artfully, and the story is told with a remarkable economy of expression and dialogue, but though this makes the film unique, it can also leave it oddly underpowered during its jungle stretches. Piranha attacks, panther encounters, and escapes from torrents of native arrows quicken the pulse, but there’s also plenty of time spent philosophising on a raft, which proves less engaging.
Luckily, the scenery and skylines are always breathtakingly beautiful, shot with a hint of nostalgic sepia tones, but always crisp and clear enough to seem strikingly modern. As steam trains pound through the wilderness and lavish libraries play host to important meetings by imperial authorities, the spirit of classical epic moviemaking makes itself joyfully felt, but there’s always a surreal touch around the corner, like an opera in the middle of the jungle, to stave off notions of staid traditionalism.
Even with the winding and brutal journey down the Amazon and a trip to the front lines of the Somme, The Lost City of Z’s strongest through-line is its exploration of what it means to be a husband and a father. Sienna Miller, in what is so commonly a thankless role, is given plenty to work with, but Gray doesn’t try to pretend that Fawcett’s progressive credentials stretched as far as gender parity. His fury at the suggestion that Nina might join him on an expedition is shocking at the time, but by not giving him a truly modern worldview, as a lesser film might, Gray deepens the believability of this character and his relationships.
In the final third, Fawcett’s near adult son (the story spans 20 years) Jack (Tom Holland) starts to mend the relationship between them, damaged as it has been by Percy’s near-constant absence. Percy sees his family’s future stretched out in front of him, and watching the father and son bond as they prepare for a mightily risky final trip to South America is both uplifting and deeply moving. Balancing family drama with ambitions of global discovery that resonate profoundly in this era of closed-off Brexit Britain is a tough ask, one that James Gray’s The Lost City of Z might not perfect, but, as Nina says (quoting Robert Browning), ‘a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for’. This is shoot for the stars filmmaking, the rarity of which makes its various flaws more than forgivable. See it, for its own sake and so that we can have more films like it.