In movies, when white men venture into the jungle, they typically end up doing mad or bad things there. From Aguirre, the Wrath of God to Fitzcarraldo to Apocalypse Now, modern films have turned stories of bold "explorers" on their heads to expose a legacy of brutal colonialism.
Stylistically, James Gray's The Lost City of Z is a throwback to those 1970s films. Its look is gorgeously naturalistic, its pace leisurely, its mood verging on trancelike, with moments when the real and surreal effortlessly meld. Thematically, though, the story it tells is a departure. While the film doesn't glorify the real-life explorations of Sir Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), it does depict him as the rare outsider who ventured into the jungle with respect for and genuine curiosity about its inhabitants.
Lost City is based on David Grann's book about Fawcett, a British army officer who, in 1906, made his first foray deep into the Amazon to map the Brazil-Bolivia border. Not a career explorer, Fawcett took the job mainly to advance himself back home. But everything changed when, in the remote Mato Grosso region, he found ruins that suggested the existence of a previously unknown, technologically advanced civilization.
From then until his disappearance in 1925, Fawcett was obsessed with exploring the "lost city" — over objections from members of the Royal Geographical Society who insisted that "savages" could never have built such structures. The film follows Fawcett's increasingly desperate efforts to return to the site, aided by levelheaded companion Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and impeded by egomaniac explorer James Murray (Angus Macfadyen). Meanwhile, Fawcett's loyal wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), stays in England, tending to their growing family.
In a boilerplate biopic, Nina would appear on screen mainly to fret about the risks her husband takes, which range from disease to starvation to volleys of arrows. But Gray has a talent for bringing out the nuance in period settings, as he already showed in The Immigrant (2013). Here, the Fawcetts have a fleshed-out partnership and a push-and-pull true to their era of (very) early feminism: Nina offers Percy invaluable support, but when she proposes accompanying him, that's a bridge too far.
Both actors give themselves to the roles in a way we haven't seen from them elsewhere. No Klaus Kinski type, Hunnam's Fawcett is a mild-mannered, very British obsessive, but his amiability only makes his stubbornness more fascinating.
From the performances to the costumes to the painterly interiors, everything in Lost City has a believable texture. And, because Gray succeeds in achieving this low-key naturalism, he earns the right to take us beyond the realm of belief into that of fantasy and hallucination. In a masterful sequence set during World War I, Fawcett sees the verdant jungle calling him even from the wasteland of the trenches. Caught on a barbed-wire fence, a pencil sketch of foliage becomes an emblem of mind over matter, of the power of dreaming.
Was Fawcett's Lost City of Z a worthy dream or just another El Dorado? Modern archaeological evidence seems to support his claims, yet one could argue that his small discoveries weren't worth the cost. The film pays tribute to Fawcett's dogged pursuit — and, at times, romanticizes it. Yet it also leaves open the possibility that what we're watching unfold is merely a ruinous obsession. Whether Fawcett was a hero, a tragic figure or a fool remains for us to ponder as we exit, like him, with that verdant glow still in our eyes.