The Lost City of Z is a movie that builds on itself, layering multiple events in history (Fawcett made numerous trips into the Amazon) that span many years in such a way it creates a cohesive story for the audience. This is a revival of old style jungle escapade movies; not just about the action as much as it is about the journey.
With a cast boasting Robert Pattinson as the intrepid Henry Costin, Fawcett’s trusted compatriot in jungle exploration, Sienna Miller as Nina Fawcett the ever-supportive yet high-spirited (if depicted somewhat idealistically) wife and Angus Macfadyen as fellow explorer James Murray, The Lost City of Z has more than one high-quality performance bringing this steady moving trek through the rainforest to life.
The Lost City of Z weaves big historical events (it’s the dawn of the 21st century here-thereby war) through the moments of Fawcett’s life in order to craft its tale. This is a look into the halls of exploration, its inhabitants, and their place among the larger legacy of British colonialism and rule. It’s a beautiful trip through a time and country not often seen with any real depth in adventure movies. I came away with a greater understanding of how difficult it had to have been to convince other people of things you’ve seen beyond their experience without benefit of proof.
How do you convince someone you saw what sounds like a fantastical beast when setting up to take a picture can take hours? I never wished for someone to have access to a polaroid camera more. It’s a fascinating and thought-provoking movie with more than a little grime on the lens. The forest isn’t always the beautiful panoramic vistas most associated with Amazonia imagery sometimes it “feels” dusty, and blurry – like it may have felt to be moving through the unfamiliar in oppressive heat surrounded by inhospitable environs.
I do have one very large caveat: despite the marketing push, this is not a true to life story.
The director’s (James Gray) visual choices present a landscape, at turns haunting, as backdrop to a film with more than an edge of the fantastical in its storytelling. This holds true not only for the slightly existential edge to Fawcett’s personality in the latter half of the movie but to the story told itself.
Gray’s movie is intentionally progressive, paying greater deference (than most exploration films try) to the Amazonia vistas and their inhabitants. The Lost City of Z tells of Fawcett’s quest and what became known as his obsession with discovering the location of an ancient civilization “lost” by turning the camera’s lens to illuminating the majesty of the landscape where its story plays out and bringing into sharper focus the indigenous people and their (misaligned) place in history as impactful on his life experiences and motivations rather than a giving faithful retelling of the real life and times of Percy Fawcett.
Charlie Hunnam stars as the valiant explorer, Colonel Percy Fawcett, a British Officer suffering the unfortunate consequences of being born into the wrong family. This blight hinders both his advancement in the military and society. Despite being a ranking officer, Fawcett languishes – to his visible frustration, portrayed by Hunnam with a restrained but convincing air – far removed from possible high profile assignments; undecorated and therefore uncelebrated. When the opportunity to distinguish himself by applying his cartography skills on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society, to mapping the border between Brazil and Bolivia – a region of the Amazon – in order to avert war between the countries (and to keep the profits from British exploitation of the region flowing back to the homeland) Fawcett reluctantly agrees to venture forth into the wilds of South America.
Hunnam’s portrayal of Fawcett shows him as a complex, charming, steadfast, intelligent, and enlightened man with skills going to waste due to conditions beyond his control. He is well-spoken, brave, and should be well thought of – at least that’s the film’s implication. He is – in this sense – a man much the product of his time, yet with an openness and desire for more, better, and greater than his circumstances that is relatable to the modern movie-goer. But this desire to approach his life story with some elevated sensibility leads to (more than) a few too many liberties by Gray in service of his narrative.
Unlike many older movies of its ilk, the writer/director chose not to oversimplify the land being explored in the telling, he instead turned that editing eye on his own character.
Hunnam’s portrayal of Fawcett while powerful and appealing, presents him as an egalitarian soul out of step with his time and contemporaries. He takes subtle issue – Hunnam has a knack with facial expression – with the treatment of indigenous people while in-country (the movie doesn’t pretty up what life among the mining camps had to offer native people nor pretend that the British ruled with a benevolent hand) and standing as their stalwart advocate espousing the belief that England may have “underestimated” the inhabitants of the Amazon. There’s even a moment where the director uses Hunnam as the vehicle to point out one of the most commonly ignored aspect of exploration by having Fawcett say while running through the jungle, “I think he meant no white man has ever seen it.” While it makes for a great movie moment and beginning to his desire to follow the breadcrumbs left in the forest, it’s disingenuous.
Percy Fawcett has been judiciously sanitized. The reality is, Fawcett was indeed a man of his time with all the incumbent racist and prejudiced beliefs inherent in the British arrogance sense of and superiority. He took no issue with referring to or believing the indigenous people of South America were savages. Fawcett was so unable to reconcile his belief that there were indeed ancient cities in the rainforest with his opinions of the native tribes he put forward the idea that there must’ve been white Indians who were the ones responsible for bringing civilization to the rainforest.
This mentality and the behavior that would naturally result from such beliefs finds life on film in the character of explorer (also a real person) James Murray who joined Fawcett’s return expedition to the Bolivian/Peruvian border in 1911. Gray depicts Murray as the self-involved, self-aggrandizing man who’d never lower himself to peaceable interaction with the savage native – even if it would save his life. How much of this is due to transference we’ll never know.
In this movie about Amazonia exploration, James Gray doesn’t try to explain away its inconsistencies nor hide its limitations. But he didn’t trust his audience to invest in a lead character who truly reflected his time. He instead endowed secondary characters with those less than honorable traits leaving Fawcett washed cleaned and pure of motive. It’s good that he didn’t wipe truth from the movie altogether and it’s laudable that he hoped to create a narrative that would spark a multilevel cultural dialogue but his aims would’ve been better accomplished without excising the truth quite so deeply from the life and times of Percy Fawcett.
note: With the release of A United Kingdom, The Promise, Their Finest and The Lost City of Z, it appears Hollywood’s spotlight is again on the historical bio-drama. Audiences are flush with choice for – quality – serious movie-fare. Expect to hear about more than one performance come award season.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Based on author David Grann’s nonfiction bestseller, The Lost City of Z tells the incredible true story of British explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), who journeys into the Amazon at the dawn of the 20th century and discovers evidence of a previously unknown, advanced civilization that may have once inhabited the region. Despite being ridiculed by the scientific establishment who regard indigenous populations as “savages,” the determined Fawcett — supported by his devoted wife (Sienna Miller), son (Tom Holland) and aide-de-camp (Robert Pattinson) — returns time and again to his beloved jungle in an attempt to prove his case, culminating in his mysterious disappearance in 1925. An epically scaled tale of courage and passion, told in writer/director James Gray’s classic filmmaking style, The Lost City of Z is a stirring tribute to the exploratory spirit and a conflicted adventurer driven to the verge of obsession.
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson
Directed By: James Gray
Written for the Screen By: James Gray
Based on the Book By: David Grann