the lost city of z review

What is it about the jungle that lures in filmmakers like a siren song? Over the years, auteurs like Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo), Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now), and Peter Weir (The Mosquito Coast) have married the untold beauty of unexplored lands with the obsession that borders on insanity exemplified by protagonists who go deeper into those lands. Now, we have a new entry in the subgenre: The Lost City of Z, courtesy of writer/director James Gray, telling a true story of a British explorer who’s seduced by the jungles of South America once and is unable to shake their pull on his psyche. While The Lost City of Z is perhaps not as overheated a depiction of the madness of obsession as Fitzcarraldo or Apocalypse Now, it’s no less entrancing and enormous.

The film spans two decades, starting in Ireland in 1905 as military officer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) struggles to make a name for himself in a world where ancestry is of vital importance, and his is shaky at best. Soon, Fawcett is approached by the Royal Geographical Society to survey and explore the far reaches of Bolivia with a small crew, including a bushy-bearded aide-de-camp (Robert Pattinson). As Fawcett travels down the river, he discovers what he believes to be tangible signs of a lost civilization that may have predated the English. In spite of traveling back to the mainland, his wife Nina (Sienna Miller), and their growing family, Fawcett’s unable to shake the notion of what he calls the “final piece” of the puzzle of humanity, this city he dubs “Z.”

Even more than those jungle-set dramas named above, The Lost City of Z is methodical and deliberate; it’s a carefully paced 140-minute film so that Fawcett’s decades-long journey – which includes serving on the front lines in World War I – feels as all-encompassing to the audience as it does to him. Hunnam bears the weight of that journey well; his performance represents a massive step up from his previous work in TV shows like Sons of Anarchy and genre pieces like Crimson Peak. Fawcett never descends into outsized madness like Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, yet he’s just as unwavering and confident in ways that border on self-defeating arrogance.

Whether trying to convince the skeptical, bigoted members of the Royal Geographical Society (who see the natives of the Amazon jungle as nothing more than savages who couldn’t possibly have any kind of advanced society or lifestyle), the independent Nina, or even his own crew members, Fawcett is steadfast in his belief of something larger just beyond his grasp. Hunnam’s take on the character is suitably, unerringly low-key but also persuasive. Through his fierce persistence, we can see both how charismatic Fawcett is as well as how obsessed the jungle has made him.

Hunnam’s work is aided largely by Gray’s ability, along with gifted cinematographer Darius Khondji, to capture the awe-inspiring beauty and horror of the Amazonian jungles. Whether or not there is a lost city, it’s almost immediately clear why Fawcett, or anyone, would find the dark-green forest fascinating. His willingness to engage with the natives is seen as progressive, and is a natural extension of how captivating he finds “Amazonia.” Gray and Khondji do a phenomenal job of making the jungle gorgeous and forbidding, making for an altogether evocative visual experience. (To their joint credit, the English countryside never looks any less beautiful, if much less wild.) In effect, The Lost City of Z is a balance between a deliberate character study and a David Lean-esque epic that demands to be seen on the big screen. Hunnam’s performance plus the beautiful cinematography alone achieves that balance.

Gray’s script, based on the book of the same name by David Grann, allows for more nuance than another film might in presenting an extremely dedicated man who essentially ignores his family in favor of his personal ambitions. It’s a welcome surprise that, through the screenplay and Miller’s layered performance, Nina isn’t occupying the role of the hectoring wife and mother; the arguments she and her husband have present her as equal to Fawcett, if not more, as his relatively enlightened viewpoint on race relations doesn’t extend to those of gender. There’s similar nuance to the relationship that Fawcett has with his oldest son, Jack (played as an adult by Tom Holland). When Jack accuses his father of having been totally, inexcusably absent, the older man lashes out violently; it’s only when Jack expresses interest in journeying to South America that his father becomes more effusive than ever before. Even in these small strokes, the film is truly haunting. That quality extends to the final section of the film and if you haven’t read the book, you should go in cold.

The Lost City of Z thrives because it’s always able to maintain a careful distance between its depiction of its protagonist and his desires. The allure of the jungle is impossible to escape for Percy Fawcett, but James Gray’s film is able to detail why Fawcett couldn’t stop himself from traveling to the heart of earthly darkness without overtly valorizing him. This is a remarkable film, filled with sumptuous visuals, an almost Kubrickian fastidiousness, and a solid central figure. It’s a balancing act between the arthouse and the epic, an enormous achievement.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10

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About the Author

Josh Spiegel is a Phoenix-based critic & writer. He's one of the hosts of Mousterpiece Cinema, a podcast about Disney films. He's also written a book of criticism on Pixar, titled Yesterday is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios.