The Lost City of Z Review by Tanner Stechnij
Immersive river drama is a very specific genre of films that has had a great showing in the past couple of years. Starting with Ciro Guerra’s spiritual and impactful Embrace of the Serpent, then João Pedro Rodrigues’ sexy and enigmatic The Ornithologist and now James Grey’s The Lost City of Z, which is a little bit of both. Gray’s take on the explorations of Percy Fawcett is mysterious and engrossing while being patient and contemplative. Gray tells Fawcett’s mythical stories with such conviction that it is almost impossible not to believe what is on the screen.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), an accomplished soldier in the British Army and explorer, was sent on a journey to discover and chart the Amazon River. He is joined with a crew including aide-de-camp Henry Costin (Robert Pattison). Fawcett becomes obsessed with the jungles and his belief of a lost city hidden in the Amazon that he called “Z.” His obsession makes him an absentee father and husband to his wife, Nina Fawcett (Sienna Miller). Despite ridicule, Percy continued his explorations throughout his life and his son Jack (Tom Holland) also becomes consumed by his father’s work.
Gray adapted journalist David Grann’s novel of the same name. Fawcett’s conviction and passion for the ancient city makes the source material strong on its own. It is juicy, human and evocative and Gray’s exploration of the unbreakable spirit of humanity that is driven by ego is understated and calm. Fawcett’s ego and obsession are damaging in every facet of his life, but his quest for discovery still seems noble. Despite leaving everything in his life, his voyages seem worthy and larger than him. The conflict between what it means to be a good person and creating history is earned and complicated.
Hunnam owns the complexities of Fawcett’s manic obsession with a career-defining performance. He understands the importance of creating a character that the audience wants to root for despite the choices he makes in his personal life. Hunnam devolves into a shell of a human for the sake of all-consuming obsession. His drive is terrifying, but the person who was once there was charismatic and likable. Hunnam balances this well without ever giving much to the audience answers.
The rest of the supporting cast is superb but Miller is best in class thanks to her ability to never reduce her supporting turns into one-dimensional housewife roles. She believes in her husband’s obsession and in turn, she falls into the grasps of his work and understands the importance of her husband mission. Her arc shows the struggles of a powerful, independent woman against the patriarchy. She saves her family only to have to succumb to their own tragic demise but fights on through her own faith. This arc is a synecdoche for the audience’s experience of watching The Lost City of Z – the audience believes Gray just as Nina believed in Percy.
Perhaps the most exciting asset of the film is its social relevance. Percy was at odds with his colleagues about the advanced culture of the Amazonian people. During his voyages to the Amazon, Percy was accepted by indigenous tribes despite their perceived hostility. When he came back to Britain, he told his fellow explorers of their culture and the peace they showed him. He was mocked and disregarded; his colleagues couldn’t accept the indigenous people as anything other than “savages.” Ultimately, Percy’s battle is against the world’s xenophobia and if he could confirm the existence of Z he could prove their civilization. Who would’ve guessed that the discovery of Z could promote acceptance more than a century later?
The cinematography is gorgeous and evocative of the themes of the film. It is no accident that the composition is lush and full, highlighted with wide, engrossing shots when Fawcett is in the Amazon. Meanwhile, interior shots are claustrophobic and stuffy – the English courtrooms are hazy and literally smoke-filled. In Percy’s mind, the violence of the jungle never seems as exhausting as staying home. Cinematographer Darius Khondji understands the environments and recreates Percy’s plight through imagery.
Gray’s action adventure movie is far less action than adventure, but more than anything it is a character study of a man searching for truth. The film is patient and straight-forward, but never spoon feeds. It doesn’t offer a lot of answers, but that’s the point. The importance is in the details and the experience.