The Lost City of Z is a difficult movie to review because of the level of artistry it reflects. Every frame of this film (literal film) is shot with literal and thematic depth that to focus on any single thing is to miss half-a-dozen others. The Lost City of Z is more than a modern masterpiece, it is one of the finest contemporary examples of the classic epic adventure – a larger than life, based-on-a-true story that never loses grip on its central humanity.
The Lost City of Z is tells of Percival Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), an English explorer, who went missing in 1925 while searching for what called “City Z,” an ancient but advanced civilization somewhere in the Amazon jungle. Fawcett’s journeys into the jungle does not stem from some Ahabian obsession, which is too extreme a thing for a man that Hunnam plays with gentleness and restraint, but starts as a mission he is resigned to. Sent into the Amazon by the Royal Geographical Society to map the border between Bolivia and Peru, Fawcett discovers pottery and carvings that he hypothesizes comes from a heretofore unknown society of native peoples.
Fawcett’s further explorations into the Amazon aren’t motivated by government decree, or even so much personal glory, but by seeing the existence of a great lost city as a way to tear down Victorian England’s hierarchies. If Fawcett could prove that these “savages” could have built cities that predate those of Europe, than surely he can prove to England that he is not to be defined by his “unfortunate choice in ancestors.” While not entirely altruistic, his goal does reflect the ideals of anthropology, to equally validate the achievements and cultures of all people regardless of geography or birth. Fawcett may see validation of the “savages” only as a way to regain the esteem of his family’s name – but he does still see them as just as worthy of promotion as he is. He believes them to be his equals, at least in terms of potential.
Across his three (abridged from eight in real life) journeys into the Amazon, Fawcett comes across all manner of adventure movie staples: white-water rapids, man-eating piranhas, cannibals, and tribes of arrow-slinging natives; but director James Gray declines to shoot any of it with a distancing exoticism or inherent danger that most movies would use to raise the stakes and sense of derring-do. Instead, he seems to agree with his protagonist when his party first stumbles onto a tribe of cannibals, “we must engage.”
While filled with all the same treacheries of other jungles, Gray’s Amazon is more evocative of a siren’s song than an obstacle course. There is a magic to be found in the jungle, a magnetic force powered not by triumph, but of understanding of something completely new and foreign. Fawcett and Gray actively reject the colonial narrative of the doomed conquistadors, instead choosing to enter the jungle on its own terms.
Cinematographer Darius Khondji brings the mysteries and magic of the jungle to light. Shooting on film, he captures the varied palette of the Amazon in its entirety, from the verdant greens of the plant-life, and the muddy earthen tones of the ground and water to the brightness of the native dress. Every shadow has a texture, hiding something to be revealed by the warm light of a passing torch, whether it’s a spear barely poking out from the bush, or the expression of an explorer’s face cast in relief. The film, like Fawcett, longs for this natural beauty when its dragged back to the dull grays and dead browns of England, scrounging for any hints of natural beauty also trapped in civilized society’s oppressive structure.
Hunnam’s career-reevaluating performance is the focus of The Lost City of Z, but far from the only one worthy of attention. Robert Pattinson disappears completely into the role of Fawcett’s dependable aide-de-camp, almost unrecognizable under a pair of wiry glasses, beard, and eccentric affectations. Sienna Miller, playing Fawcett’s wife, Nina, acts as her husband’s perfect foil. They are equal in mental ability, and she argues equal in physical tolerance as well; but just as he his kept down by England’s class system, she is kept from the jungle by his patriarchal belief in the woman’s role as mother. Instead of exploring with him, she stays home raising their three children. The eldest son, Jack (Tom Holland), grows into a headstrong young man who, initially resentful of his father’s time away from his family, joins him on his final expedition into the Amazon.
The Lost City of Z is sprawling, covering two decades, three expeditions, and even a world war; taking it’s time, but never dragging its feet. The movie feels less driven and more drawn to its inevitable conclusion deep in Amazonia, pulling the audience deeper into its story with promises of further adventure and feasts of natural and cinematic beauty in uncharted lands. Each pull away from the jungle is received by a greater pull back, a further instance to reaching the lost city. Fictional stories of explorers and their journeys have been put to film since the medium’s birth, and The Lost City of Z reminds audiences that their real-life inspirations were just as fantastical and worth being told.