Based on the look of this film, it would be no surprise to learn how difficult it was to make The Lost City of Z. I’m not speaking just to the shots of a wooden raft traveling down the Amazon River. No, it’s the look on the faces of these actors, which displays more than what makeup can accomplish. With echoes of David Lean and John Huston, writer/director James Gray (The Immigrant) certainly took on an ambitious project this time around, outshining his previous films in terms of scope. The result is a solid adventure story, divided into parts that explore just what it is that can drive someone to head into danger for the sake of possible discovery.
Charlie Hunnam stars as famed British explorer Percy Fawcett, the man who made several attempts to find an ancient lost city in the Amazon, only to (spoilers for history) eventually disappear himself, during what would be his final expedition. The film recounts some of his exploits on the river and what came from his interactions with the indigenous people. There is also exploration of the difficulties Fawcett had in finding support from the scientific community regarding these supposed “savages” and their actual capabilities, let alone the stress it put on his family.
The Lost City of Z unfolds in a linear manner, with some updates on the year every so often. We are essentially given a lot of highlights from Fawcett’s life, but the film’s effectiveness in utilizing this format comes from developing our awareness of Fawcett’s love for the jungle. Hunnam does a terrific job in conveying the fondness he has for this life on the river, being an explorer and generally trying to embrace all of the exotic worlds around him. This helps to make scenes outside of the jungle compelling, as you are watching a man struggle to communicate what drives him.
What I wasn’t expecting was just how relevant this story would be in its own way. One of the film’s highlights is an assembly scene, where Fawcett explains the possibility of an advanced civilization of indigenous people that could predate what has previously been established. This is met with scoffs and ridicule from the large group of older, white men who flatly deny that any group of “savages” such as these could have existed, let alone been capable of building tools and organizing. It’s the sort of moment that clearly sets up how noble Fawcett is, while also reflecting the time and what types of thinking never seems to go away.
Thematic work aside, the film works as a character study, with some nice supporting roles to help fill out the surroundings, which are quite wonderful to behold. When not being impressed by the stunning cinematography by Darius Khondji, enjoy the other performances in the film, such as Robert Pattinson’s Henry Costin, a no-nonsense fellow explorer. Sienna Miller does the best she can with the role of concerned wife, made better by how the script addresses her concerns with her husband’s actions. Angus Macfadyen portrays another explorer, whose actions have serious effects on one pivotal mission. There’s also Ian McDiarmid lending some prestige to a film outside the Star Wars universe. And young Tom Holland makes enough of an impression as Fawcett’s oldest son.
I will say the film seems to grapple with its opening moments, as far as drawing the viewer in. Perhaps its knowing what’s to come that made me anxious to get on the river, but once we do, the film becomes quite involving, even as it slows down between expeditions. One lengthy sequence comes in the form of a WWI interlude, reminding us once again what an ugly war that is to see depicted. It’s not quite the struggle that makes up the opening section of the film, but I don’t think Gray is beyond showing just how different the setting of dangerous trenches are, compared to the intriguing jungle missions.
Being on the river is really where the film finds itself at its most comfortable points. While the struggles back in London can be engaging, there are the thrilling moments of being adrift on a river and suddenly facing down random tribes thrusting spears towards the camera that really let the film become unleashed. While not a pulpy adventure story, Gray does a service to the film by making the journey feel dangerous. It makes it all the more compelling when you see this film’s handling of piranhas, which is probably more realistic than any other that came before it. Essentially, heading into the Amazon the way these men do is perilous and while the film is not trying to paint a bad picture of those inhabiting the jungles, it is more than willing to highlight the outsiders’ ignorance.
The Lost City of Z feels like an accomplished piece of work doing its best to highlight an explorer who influenced many. It’s a tribute film of sorts, but one that tells a character-driven story, effective on many levels. While a bit cold in terms of how much it was able to resonate with me on an emotional level, seeing an ultimate journey unfold in various parts the way this film does was interesting. Matching that with some solid performances and wonderful production values only further emphasized how well-handled this journey to a lost city could be. It may not have led to the actual discovery of El Dorado, but it at least painted a respectful portrayal.