Even while growing up in the 1980s, it still felt acceptable to idolize the great explorers, those men who had left civilization to venture forth into the more remote parts of the world. To discover new things. To fill in the maps and uncover everything on the planet. This romantic, uncomplicated ideal quickly becomes tarnished when one learns of colonialism and exploitation. And while writer/director James Gray doesn’t seek to restore men in pith helmets to a pedestal, The Lost City of Z certainly predisposes that there could be an explorer, more enlightened than his peers, and more well-intentioned.
It is the story of Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a military man and surveyor who journeys into “Amazonia” at the turn of the 20th century. His mission is to find the source of a river on the Brazil-Bolivia border. While there, he and his aide-de-camp, Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) find what they believe is proof of an ancient civilization previously unknown to Europeans. Farcett becomes obsessed with the idea, which he calls the Lost City of Z (the Z is said as ‘zed’ because that’s the proper British way). While he returns to his wife, Nina (Siena Miller), he becomes obsessed with finding Z, eventually returning to the Amazon several times, including with his son Jack (Tom Holland).
The film is retrograde not only in its thirsty admiration for these explorers, but also in the way it looks. The colors are bright and saturated, whether we are in English fields, Amazon jungle, or smoky offices of the Royal Geographic Society. There is a grandeur to everything in front of the camera, as it is all supposed to feel important. And it mostly does. There isn’t much of an emotional core to the film (stiff upper lip and all that), except perhaps in how it contrasts the relationships between fathers and children have changed in the last century.
It also helps that the film casts Fawcett as a progressive of his day, wanting to learn about and have some amount of the respect for the indigenous people than his colleagues, to whom they are mindless savages. Part of the reason they doubt Fawcett is because they are unable to believe that such backwards people could create anything remotely resembling their own lives. But Fawcett is a humanist, an optimist believing that common human nature triumphs over all. His desire to elevate the natives of Amazonia parallels his own struggles within civilization.
Fawcett doesn’t just delight in challenging the prevailing wisdom of his day for its own sake or for simple morality. It is because he is driven to obsession by the other obstacles in his life. He isn’t a man who ventures into the dense forest to challenge his own mettle, but he pushes deeper to bring back something to the wider world which will elevate his stature in the rigid class structure of England. “He’s been rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors,” dismisses one of his potential peers, which will undoubtedly remain one of the best lines in any film this year.
And this is one of the most arresting things about Fawcett’s story. The kind of determinism, the assumed superiority of Europeans, is the same power structures that allows these aristocrats to be dismissive both of middle class Fawcett and the uncivilized savages.
The story is compelling, but what holds it back is the performances. Part of it is due to Gray’s restraint in his conception of Fawcett. He has no outbursts, and even his wonderment and excitement are muted. Hunnam’s earnest delivery of every line of dialogue helps here, even if it is just as flat as his other performances. Lost City of Z excels at the visuals and concepts to relay the ideas, but doesn’t truly connect emotionally. There’s also some occasionally clunky dialogue, which mostly seems to happen when the film is trying to portray Nina’s struggle to be an individualistic woman.
Lost City of Z is worth celebrating for its success in attempting a contemporary update on a problematic genre, and mostly finds success.
Lost City of Z opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan has been writing thoughtful film reviews and pop culture commentary on and off for over a decade. He spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area. His other interests include comic books, coffee, experimental beer, discovering new music, and books.