Director James Gray has always made movies about perpetual outsiders, people who are living and existing in places far away from where they were born and grew up. He’s dealt with Russians living in New York City (Little Odessa, We Own the Night), Jewish immigrants living and falling in love in Brooklyn (Two Lovers), and Poles coming to the United States (The Immigrant). For his latest film, he focuses on real-life British explorer Percy Fawcett taking several trips into the Amazon in the early 1900s in an attempt to find a lost civilization that, if authentic, could predate all known culture. But The Lost City of Z (pronounced “Zed” in the film) isn’t just an adventure tale about a man braving unknown wildlife, disease, weather, and a few cannibals; it’s about a man attempting to claim a spot amongst the upper classes of Britain—a spot that his reckless, self-destructive father ruined for the family many years earlier.
Fawcett (a career-best big-screen performance by Charlie Hunnam of “Sons of Anarchy”, Pacific Rim, and Crimson Peak) is painted as a man who is progressive for his time in most things. He sees his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) as something of an equal in most things. However, when she suggests she goes with him on one of his years-long trips, he won’t even entertain the idea due to their young children. Instead his faithful companion is Henry Costin (an almost unrecognizable Robert Pattinson), and the two make a fantastic team, who find ways of respecting the cultures they are essentially invading and making friendly relations so that future journeys might not be so much of an ordeal.
His first mission to Amazonia is meant to be more of a mapping expedition for the Royal Geographical Society, represented by Sir George Goldie (Ian McDiarmid), but when he begins to hear rumblings of a lost “city of gold” buried in the jungles, Fawcett makes it his mission to locate evidence of such a civilization. When he presents his minimal findings to the Society, he’s practically laughed out of the room at the idea that the earliest civilizations might have been found among the “savages” of South America. Hunnam plays Fawcett as not just a figure of endless curiosity, but of an open mind regarding the people of Amazonia, someone who is more intent on finding truth than proving British superiority.
World War I interrupts his immediately plans for a return, and when he’s finally ready again, his eldest son, Jack (Tom Holland), asks to accompany him. The scene in which the two men present the idea to Nina is a stunning blend of tension, motherly protectiveness, and full knowledge that fate may have a stronger hand in this decision than reason. Director Gray (who adapted the book by David Grann) strikes a remarkable balance between the family drama, the class and status struggle Fawcett goes through, and the actual explorations, and how different each journey is.
One especially frustrating trip into the jungle involves bringing along one James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), who is both grossly out of shape and all too eager to shoot anything that doesn’t look like him. Although he’s a ranking member of the RGS, he has virtually no experience in actual exploration and single-handedly wrecks the trip with combination of being ill, injured, racist, and hungry. It’s a remarkable sequence that show how such intricately planned adventures can be destroyed by the ego of one upper-class twit.
If you don’t know how Fawcett’s final trip to Amazonia in 1923 turns out, I don’t want to ruin it for you here. It’s a nebulous end to an incredible life, and it’s a story that leaves more questions than answers, but Gray handles it deftly and with a degree of educated guessing that doesn’t erode the reality or speculate too wildly for the sake of good cinema. The jungles sequences are shot like a fever dream at times by cinematographer Darius Khondji (Delicatessen, Se7en, Panic Room, Midnight in Paris, Amour), who also manages to makes the moments set in Britain seem warm and comforting.
In some ways, the story of this visionary whom no one supports until he gets a little heat behind him (in Fawcett’s case, when American newspapers offer to sponsor his last journey, the Brits finally see his worth) is every director’s’ story. No one sees his vision…until they do. The Lost City of Z is an inspired and inspiring tale, loaded with great acting and even more impressive visual lushness. I highly recommend you view this on the biggest screen you can find because you aren’t likely to see anything like it again for quite some time.