As real-life British explorer Percy Fawcett in The Lost City of Z, Charlie Hunnam is something of a woke Indiana Jones. Sent to map the Amazon jungle, Fawcett returns enamored with the indigenous cultures he encountered and obsessed with a fabled city that is said to lurk deep within the forest. Despite the professional scoffing of his colleagues and the palpable, increasing loneliness of his wife (Sienna Miller) and young family, Fawcett returns to the Amazon three times over the course of his life, determined—as he puts it—to “tear down their narrow-minded convictions.”
Was Fawcett ahead of his time, or simply mad? That’s the tension explored in The Lost City of Z. Adapted by director James Gray from the 2009 nonfiction book by David Grann, this is a modern, enlightened take on the explorer narrative; surely National Geographic would approve. Yet the movie also allows the possibility that Fawcett’s wholehearted embrace of this other world was his personal undoing. By the end we’re left wondering if his obsession led to ultimate enlightenment or devastating loss.
One thing is certain: few epic adventures have been filmed as lustrously as The Lost City of Z. Working with cinematographer Darius Khondji, as he did on The Immigrant, Gray makes this jungle at once imposing and luxurious, as if the fronds were made of poisonous velvet. Firelight casts a soft glow towards the corners of the screen, before eventually giving way to the maw of blackness. The river at once glistens with delight and churns with menace. The most beautiful image in the film, in fact, is one of death: fallen overboard, one of the explorers gets trapped in a fishing net as piranha attack, the sunlight from above framing his writhing body as a shadowy figure worthy of Rembrandt. I felt that The Immigrant gave too much of itself over to this lushly lit aesthetic, but here the technique feels less ostentatious. It simultaneously captures the reality of the Amazon and the fantasy that exists in Fawcett’s head.
Gray makes this jungle at once imposing and luxurious, as if the fronds were made of poisonous velvet.
In fact, the movie’s visuals do a better job of getting us into Fawcett’s head than Hunnam does. Usually a forgettable presence even when he’s the lead (Pacific Rim), Hunnam makes a more distinct impression here with an earnest, demonstrative performance. Yet even as he gives Fawcett an outward conviction—a set jaw, terse diction—we never quite feel the inner drive behind the determined posture and declarative words.
Thankfully the filmmaking picks up the slack. Fawcett’s inner dilemma—what he is willing to sacrifice at home by traveling abroad—is communicated at times with insert shots, in which Fawcett, while in the jungle, is suddenly reminded of his wife. More elegant is a scene in which Fawcett’s train passes a station as he heads away from home. Ever so briefly, we get a tracking shot, matching the pace of the train, in which we sail past Fawcett’s wife alone in bed.
Another lovely moment takes place in the trenches of World War I, where Fawcett is sent to serve between expeditions. Killing time between attacks, he sits down with a palm reader who keys in on his obsession. As she speaks, the background gives way so that it appears as if the two of them are sitting not in a battlefield in France, but in the Amazon jungle. Here, quite literally, the movie has blurred the line between Europe and South America.
In its climax, where Fawcett has encountered a new tribe on his third journey to the Amazon, The Lost City of Z seemingly leaves Europe behind altogether. Held captive, Fawcett becomes part of an elaborate ceremony that could be preface to a sacrifice or could be an elaborate initiation rite. Either way, he greets it with an out-of-body bliss. Throughout the film, Gray has allowed the mistiness of the jungle to seep into each frame, but in the finale this is emphasized to the point of the metaphysical. The movie’s final shot—a far subtler trick than the one Gray pulled at the end of The Immigrant—puts us in a new space altogether, one where dreams and regrets live together, and rationality is swallowed up by something we can’t fully comprehend. Fawcett has either been finally found, or lost for good.