James Gray’s The Lost City of Z belongs to one of the most classical categories of mainstream cinema, the historical biopic. In many ways, it hews to the traditions one would expect from the genre, but mostly in a cursory sense and only occasionally to its detriment. At a glance, the movie would seem to be almost conventional. Look closer, though, and you’ll find a unique film strung together on a wave of dark, ethereal sadness that builds to an ending that is both distinct and diffuse.
Percy Fawcett (played here by Charlie Hunnam) was a British military officer and explorer who, in 1906, ventured to Brazil at the behest of the Royal Geographical Society to map the country’s border with Bolivia. Accompanied by fellow soldiers named Costin (Robert Pattinson) and Manley (Edward Ashley), his cartographical pursuits in the film become secondary as he grows convinced that an ancient, abandoned city awaits discovery somewhere in the jungle. The Lost City of Z goes on to chronicle the next twenty years of Fawcett’s life, during which he repeatedly returns to Brazil to find this legendary place.
In a way, all films about European exploration are necessarily surreal. As in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, there’s a perverse humor to seeing Western codes of dress and decorum insisted upon even in the hostile elements of the rainforest. Gray knows this and allows room for deliciously odd moments like when Fawcett and company stumble upon an opera in the middle of the jungle, being performed in the camp of Portuguese rubber tycoon Baron de Gondoriz (Franco Nero). Yet Gray also reminds us that this imposition of one world onto another is the result of chauvinistic racism, an ugly facet of the story that Gray makes a constant presence. The attitudes on display are vile (the repeatedly spoken word “savages” drips with toxicity) but, to the characters, it’s Fawcett resistance to racism—his insistence that South American tribes be taken seriously as equals—that is most shocking. That’s not to imply that Gray has turned his protagonist into an anachronistic hero of social justice; his refusal to indulge his wife’s (Sienna Miller) own interest in the Amazon and his insistence that indurate gender roles are the foundation of civilization are reminders that he remains a product of his time and place.
Gray’s deftness in handling potentially conflicting elements is mirrored by the rest of his technical and creative team. The score, from Gray’s veteran collaborator Christopher Spelman, is full of sad tones; even in moments of glory, there are reminders that death lurks. The great Darius Khondji provides stately widescreen frames which editor John Axelrad cuts together with a sharp but reserved eye for action.
Only the screenplay provides the occasional falter, with a nagging tendency to over-explain what Gray and his cast and crew have already made apparent. Miller’s Nina has to remain in the balcony with all the other women when her husband addresses the RGS, a circumstance that the establishing shot has already relayed when we have to hear Nina inquire about seating in the main gallery and be told, “It’s men only, I’m afraid.” Poor Angus Macfadyen, as older explorer James Murray, gets the lion’s share of such lines, though. Fawcett’s acceptance into British society is marked by Murray loudly proclaiming, “Welcome to the inner circle!” Later, Murray accuses Fawcett, “You only care about your lost city,” which is both obvious and an unfortunate oversimplification of the character. Luckily, many of these problems are made forgivable by the formidable cast, Miller and Macfadyen included, while Pattinson—as a bespectacled, unlikely badass—keeps making his great talent less and less surprising with each role.
Still, this is Hunnam’s showcase and he has turned in what is doubtless his best performance to date. The deep sadness of Spelman’s score seems to have taken its cues from Hunnam’s Fawcett, whose eager hopefulness to find Z is undercut by the wisdom that, even if he does, it won’t be enough and it won’t last. Nothing lasts forever and nothing is truly knowable. The film’s most powerful visual moment arrives during Fawcett’s final expedition when he comes upon the remnants of his previous ones. Nero’s Baron, in an early scene, seeks assurance from Fawcett that, despite his newly drawn borders, “Nothing will change.” Gray reminds us that such a promise is impossible to make. The Lost City of Z’s ultimate tragedy is that, even if Fawcett achieves his greatest ambition and the subsequent legacy, time will immediately get to work obscuring it, like vines growing over stone.