There’s something particularly disappointing about a masterfully made movie, a movie that shines and innovates on screen, stingingly and sonorously written, beautifully directed, and stunningly acted—that withers in the end because its mythos, its drive, remains terminally dulled. The Lost City of Z is a near-masterpiece. But where it achieves brilliance scene-by-scene, as a whole the movie doesn’t deliver the sense of mystery and wonder that it promises.
Director James Gray’s The Lost City of Z is a stunning biopic of early twentieth-century English explorer Percival Fawcett, played beautifully—in both senses—by Sons of Anarchy’s Charlie Hunnam. Percy Fawcett is a legendary figure, an explorer who delved into South American jungles and who became both famous for and fixated on what he believed to be an ancient Amazonian civilization that predated European development. One of Fawcett’s great contributions to the budding, much lionized art of exploring the “wilds of the world” was the innovation that one should, rather than shooting on sight, attempt to communicate with the native people one encountered along the way.
That’s the history of it, or as much as the movie demands. Gray based the movie on the nonfiction account of Fawcett’s life, David Grann’s text of the same name. Fawcett’s mythology is ingrained in the history books via the unsolved mystery of his death—or disappearance—deep in the jungle he devotes his life to exploring. Since his disappearance, some sources say over one hundred subsequent adventurers have failed or died trying to track down what really happened to him and his son, Jack, who was accompanying him. To this day the area he was certain contained his so-called Lost City of Z, according to National Geographic, is still extremely dangerous to venture into, as it is home to up to twenty-nine uncontacted indigenous tribes who, as they did in Fawcett’s time, defend their communities.
Sienna Miller turns in an exquisite performance as Fawcett’s wife, Nina, and—while her character isn’t being used as a clothes rack to show the passing of the years through changing fashions—she voices some of the half-hearted and ultimately defeated talk of the New Woman, the independent and self-assertive woman of the turn of the century. Robert Pattinson also appears with a crisp, startling performance, nearly unrecognizable behind a thick beard and a likable character, as Fawcett’s devoted traveling companion Henry Costin, who accompanied Fawcett on all except his last, doomed mission.
Ostensibly the movie is about venturing into the unknown, searching for the answer to mysteries about history and humanity, as Fawcett delves determinedly into the jungles of Amazonia in search of what he calls the Lost City of Z. This lost city comes to stand for many illusive aims: reclaiming family honor, achieving personal glory, broadening the minds of the narrow-minded, opening the door onto the world’s remaining mysteries.
The portions of the film set in England have an almost ethnographic strangeness to them, as the England of the 1900s through the 1930s is incarnated in hunts and galas and barriers of status. “He has been unfortunate in his choice of ancestors,” the first line used to describe Fawcett by another character, encompasses a great deal of that strangeness. England as we’re introduced to it is a world of crinolines and stiff collars, a tightly controlled world in which Fawcett is stifled and his obvious manly talents muted. The viewer also knows, with fascinated certainty, that England’s empire and its way of life has a very short lifespan ahead of it.
Hunnam brings off his performance as Fawcett with an undeniable charm and clarity, but I had the sense throughout the movie that Fawcett’s characterization ran something like a checklist with the boxes being ticked off: he’s a proto-type of an explorer, a gentleman and a warrior, concerned with promoting equality and smashing narrow frames of mind, and he really does think we should pity the native Indian of Amazonia.
Fawcett is of course a fabulous figure to bring to screen. He’s arguably been there for quite some time, in one guise or another: his dear friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle supposedly based Sherlock Holmes in part on him, and according to legend James Bond has the very same roots. The man was by all accounts a living legend, a man of action, an explorer, soldier, and progressive with vision and ability. But on screen as himself, in The Lost City, he is nothing short of a saint, albeit with moments of weakness and frustration.
This relative sort of perfection undermines Gray’s film through the fact that Fawcett’s obsession with unearthing the Lost City of Z becomes something of an ideal in the movie. Obsession as a positive personality trait works within the narrative, to a point, but something falls flat between the screen and the viewer. Grann’s book, the source material, fell under similar criticism. Fawcett’s unquestioning zeal that he is “destined” to personally uncover the secrets of this strange, new land has a deeply problematic ring to it, which the movie, shockingly, doesn’t seem to be fully cognizant of.
This is a hero’s journey story, a voyage to self-discovery and personal greatness. And it is, undeniably, the same male, white, Eurocentric narrative that was told about Fawcett in his own day, with few innovations or expansions beyond a few asides about the farming prowess of the so-called “savages.” His exploration spurred a wave of armed Western encroachment on the region. But this is certainly Fawcett’s story: no one else’s. Not the native peoples’, not his critics’, and not his surviving family’s. The jungle and its people are, in the end, only a symbol of Fawcett’s unquenchable spirit of discovery.
The movie’s gestures toward depicting Fawcett’s own sense of the native people—that is, developed, cohesive, and functioning societies rather than barbarous ones waiting to be Europeanized—are broad and obvious, even at times overbearing. But those views are a hundred years stale, and the fact remains that in the whole of the movie, there is not one named or recurring non-white character and only one named and speaking female role. (The only other speaking role for a woman is a “gypsy” fortune teller secreted into the trenches where Fawcett and Costin are soldiers; her sole purpose is to reaffirm the seemingly innate and positive link between Fawcett and “his” jungle.) As the tension of the narrative peaks, the native people are depicted with their eyes glinting and their painted faces emerging anonymously from the dark around the campfire—dangerous, mysterious, and trope-typical. Shots like that are indistinguishable from the deeply racist depictions of the uber-scary tribal natives of King Kong’s Skull Island. Filmmaking that seems to begin with careful, good intentions ends up going very low, very quickly for the sake of on-screen effect.
In the end, The Lost City of Z’s sense of mystery and wonder is only available in a binocular view: from the point of view of Fawcett, and no one else. His enthusiasm is catching and transformative to the people around him, but his personal quest to find the “unknown” and “undiscovered” in the New World isn’t qualified, justified, or vindicated beyond his own determination for rank and personal achievement. It’s a sad, abrupt block on what promised to be a powerful and expansive movie about new perspectives and expanding narrowed viewpoints on the wider world.