Starring Charlie Hunnam. Rated 14A
From its title to its dashing, mustachioed lead, The Lost City of Z harks back to the classic explorer movies of the last century. But it also comments on the downfall of that era, when all-male geographic societies talked about savages.
Basing his extended tale on the nonfiction book of the same name by David Grann, director James Gray tells the story of Percy Fawcett, a stiff-upper-lip Brit explorer who became obsessed with finding a lost city hidden in the thick Amazonian jungle of Bolivia and Brazil. Early in the last century, he left behind a wife and children he adored to spend years roughing it in the remote and dangerous “green desert”, a place where teeming piranhas and poison-arrow-shooting cannibals were just a few of the welcoming parties.
Not that The Lost City of Z is an Indiana Jones–style thrill ride. It’s a meditative look at one man’s obsession, shot in rich, dreamlike imagery. There’s even a nod to Fitzcarraldo when Fawcett’s ragtag team stumbles upon an opera house in the middle of dense rainforest. It’s a Heart of Darkness story, yes, but one that’s measured and modest. Think of it as a gentler, more gentlemanly flipside to Apocalypse Now.
Amazonia was no place for an upper-crust Englishman in collared shirts. So why did Fawcett return after his first failed mission there—despite the mocking by peers who said there could not have been a civilized people in the jungle? “Soldierly decoration and reclaiming your family name” is the reason one of Fawcett’s superiors gives. Fawcett clearly has a taste for masculine glory, but it mixes with a desire to beat the gun-wielding colonialists to the ancient city. Aided by cinematographer Darius Khondji, Gray also contrasts cold-grey Britain against the dense, leafy wilds that call out to Fawcett.
Still, Fawcett remains, frustratingly, an enigma. Hunnam’s reserved, one-note, plummy take on his man of honour doesn’t help matters.
Cryptic and wandering as it all is, The Lost City of Z still casts a spell. It coalesces in a near-mystical ending, when its themes come magically together: the idea that we can never own or tame another civilization, the impossibility of knowing all the world’s mysteries, and the ability of the jungle to reclaim its losses. Just prepare for a long, leech- and spear-filled journey to get there.