Seeking El Dorado Is Its Own Reward in 'The Lost City of Z'
Questing for humanity in the uncharted Amazon, James Gray’s new period epic is told at a whisper.
The first time Percy Fawcett forgoes a beaten path, he veers from the pack of a stag hunt and into a modest grove to fire the chase’s decisive shot. While this incident is quickly outsized by Fawcett’s subsequent 20 years of questing through the Amazon rainforest, the army ritual reveals the distance between Major Fawcett’s nature and English ceremony. The real-life explorer as portrayed in The Lost City of Z is a budding non-conformist in the British Empire, which by 1905 had begun to distend and suffocate itself with global greed and rivalry.
Some viewers may know his legacy: Percy Fawcett's story is fascinating to those who study British colonial history or enjoy the thrill of the unsolved mystery. Yet, writer-director James Gray’s retelling cares little for the legends surrounding Fawcett’s ultimate disappearance in 1925, or his status as a kind of anthropological Jimmy Hoffa. Gray’s The Lost City of Z adapts the voice and tone of the Hollywood epic, certainly, but it’s told at a whisper. The film runs like a tunnel through his life and psychology; it does not build a tower in his honor.
The chance to finally pin a medal on his military collar first draws Fawcett (played by Charlie Hunnam) to South America in 1905. Leaving behind his wife Cheeky (Sienna Miller) and young son, he finds a partner in Henry Costin (played by the bearded and barely recognizable Robert Pattinson) in the belly of an ocean steamer. On this first voyage, Fawcett and Costin act as Royal Geographical Society surveyors mapping a peacekeeping border between Brazil and Bolivia. The inaugural mission rapidly confirms the brutality of this “green desert,” but it reveals unsuspected and life-altering scientific promise. Rumors of an undiscovered civilization and its lost city, which Fawcett eventually dubs Zed, will consume the remainder of his years.
In its carefully measured biography, navigating around the classic emotional peaks and valleys of such a tale, The Lost City of Z comes off as contemplative and life-like. Sure, there are hair-raising encounters with native arrows, wild animals and shifty strangers, but Gray has a brilliant way of withholding character transformation until a return to normalcy reveals the changes in Fawcett. Fawcett’s bond with the Amazon is an emotional force that's somewhere between PTSD and enchantment. Soon, English home life simply won’t do.
Across two hours and 20 minutes, a low-humming motor propels Hunnam’s evolving take on Fawcett. The impeccably mustachioed young officer becomes the evangelizer for ethical exploration becomes the absent father who can barely hide his fixation on Zed. Through these stages, Hunnam relishes the task but takes no wild swings. Fawcett’s sheer conviction is enough foundation for the role, and it’s clear to us if we simply count how many times he utters utters some variation of “we must keep going.” The film is co-produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment, so perhaps not coincidentally, it’s reminiscent of the character development from Seven Years In Tibet (1997) and Legends of the Fall (1994); take a handsome ball of clay and watch as the decades and adventures do their eroding.
The supporting cast shines in their reactions to Fawcett. Costin’s growing devotion to his commanding officer is fascinating in no small part for the former teen idol Pattinson taking the sidekick part, disguising himself in support of the starring role he could easily be playing. Even more surprising, the film does right by Cheeky Fawcett, whom we find in illuminating asides is the true torchbearer of the family’s forward-at-all-costs spirit. “To seek what’s beautiful is its own reward,” she writes to her husband.
Now, around the time of these soaring quotes about platonic “reward” is where the movie ought to be examined for mythologizing colonialism. On this front, the film is lucky for its subject. After his first journey to South America, Fawcett quickly molded himself into an abolitionist and activist for the rights of Brazil’s indigenous communities. Still, the historical sandbox in which The Lost City of Z plays is the white man’s draw toward discovery. Verses from Rudyard Kipling’s 1898 poem “The Explorer” are selectively quoted. It’s a poem that, yes, puts forth an aspirational spirit for the individual, but could equally be read as a call to global Manifest Destiny from the writer who penned “The White Man’s Burden” just one year later. What are Gray’s motivations in telling this story of empire-sanctioned exploration, even if not in a way that lionizes conquest?
That’s just the start of the questions we have about the filmmaker himself. Six films into a two-decade career, Gray remains an enigma to most filmgoers. There are those who consider him the most underrated American filmmaker of his day, as well as those who might contend he’s yet to produce a defining achievement. In its striking cinematic ambition, The Lost City of Z may well bring those camps closer to an agreement about Gray’s reputation (his merit recognized, his biggest filmography mark made).
However, the film's withdrawn demeanor doesn’t lay all inscrutability about its director to rest. Mostly, Gray shows that his true north is calibrated differently than directors who’d explore a comparable epic. The Lost City of Z is apolitical by Roland Joffé’s standards, muted compared to Sydney Pollack's, indebted to odd details more than Steven Spielberg's, and far murkier than David Lean's work. For example, Gray finds the parliamentary proceedings of Westminster Abbey more visually mysterious than uncharted jungle, thus clouding the former in dust-choked eeriness. Sonically speaking, Chris Spelman’s moody score teases the build to an overture for the film’s first 20 minutes, but the main theme ends up more of a rumination that sneaks up on us.
This isn’t to say that Gray’s tastes are deliberately obscure. He makes the most of the rainforest’s natural beauty and danger; he’s just not interested in elevating Fawcett’s traipsing and boating through it to symphonic heights. His most memorable shots are subtly psychological at the same time as painterly -- shadows framed in corridors or Fawcett as a speck on the horizon -- and action happens without fanfare. Thematically, the odyssey somehow sidesteps Heart of Darknessresonances, though sometimes a little madness would liven it up. There’s no doubt that the film’s third act, leading up to Fawcett’s final sojourn is achingly slow, but Gray is restrained to the end.
For this approach, Fawcett’s deeper, perhaps subconscious reasons to seek Zed happen slowly, appearing around a curve in the narrative river we perhaps didn’t yet realize we'd been following. Gray’s sage interpretations of history make this pacing possible, as he bends the macro around the motivations of this one man. Late in the film, the camera (acting as Fawcett’s eye) lingers on an English soldier in the trenches of WWI Belgium, a ghostly mask of brown burlap pulled over his face. The mask’s crudeness is far scarier than any of the stone-carved visages that supposedly mark the path to Zed, or even skulls we’ve witnessed in villages that practice cannibalism. The eyes and mouth are distinctly, perversely anthropoid, an approximation of the human face rendered for the collapse of a civilization, not the birth of one.
At this late hour in the history of the empire's expansion, Fawcett doesn’t see Zed as El Dorado; for him, Zed is Eden.