Though “The Lost City of Z” predominantly takes place in Amazonia it opens in the throes of aristocracy amidst a British military fox hunt in the forests of Ireland. It is, after all, 1905, when the colonist British empire stretched so far that a boundless world would have nonetheless felt smugly reigned in, which this hunt evokes, so coordinated and regal and still firmly on the grounds of some well-to-do estate, as if the natural world is at Britain’s beck and call. Colonel Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) looks that imperious part as he bags the prize, confident doing so will earn him the promotion he craves, only to be reminded society’s underpinning is a good name, which his disgraced father long ago negated. So Fawcett seeks to restore his family legacy by turning his back on the disagreeable ordered world, assuming the task of mapping the uncharted border between Brazil and Bolivia, a journey not as much into colonist takeover as the mystic.
That journey begins when he is told to abort his mission. Rather than returning home, however, with his family name still sullied, Fawcett coordinates his own mission to find the source of the Rio Verde, a rafting adventure played less for thrills than slow-burning exhaustion. Not that the end is mere relief, because upon eventually reaching the headwaters he just sort of glides by his mammoth discovery, one which earns him acclaim back home, for another one, finding all manner of artifacts nearby, evidence, he insists, of an El Dorado-ish Lost City of Z, a legend his Amazonian guide has made sound true. That lost city becomes his life’s work as he returns to the Amazon twice more to try and find it, first with a regular team in tow and then, a couple decades later, a team consisting of only him and his oldest boy Jack (Tom Holland as an adult), essentially conscripting his son in his legacy.
Fawcett’s pitch to return centers on the existence of an ancient advanced society he hopes to confirm, which naturally puts him at odds with the stuffy British elite convinced Amazonians were and are strictly savages. That marks Percy’s crusade as something akin to noble, though director James Gray is careful to distort that virtue. Indeed, every subsequent meeting with an Amazonian tribe is tempered by Fawcett hoping these people can shed light on Z, selfishness and selflessness blending, a paradox the movie itself has no desire to solve because it knows it can’t be. And Hunnam’s marvelous performance, such an exemplar of buttoned-up thirst, plays straight to this idea, never more than the address he makes to the Royal Geographic Society, a speechifying scene where he basks in so much newfound attention, evoking earnestness in his defense of the so-called savages but also hell bent on proving his wild claims true.
That impressive dimension is perhaps most brought to light in his home life, the subplot movies of this ilk typically pay little regard to but which Gray paints with great care. Though Fawcett’s wife Nina (Sienna Miller) is often stranded on the edge of the film, seeking a way in but barred from entering the boy’s club, Gray, given the era in which the film is set, makes this rote plot point the point – acutely seen during Percy’s speech when she is barred from entering the floor of the RGS, forcing to remain in the balcony. Though Nina deals with sexism, from her own husband even, played by Hunnam not with a vicious edge but an inborn sense of the way of the world, and confronts it, she is nonetheless consciously written at Percy’s most passionate supporter, pushing him ahead with attitude and words, quoting Kipling as a poetical means of inspiration, stressing the importance of life’s value found in the unknown. In a sense, she is her husband’s co-captain, just marooned on the home front, a depressing double standard that Miller brings home when Nina gives her blessing for Jack to join his father, conveying sadness at letting her son go and sadness that he gets to go.
In one astonishing shot, Gray evokes Nina’s longing in the family’s backyard, wherein the sound of wind rippling through a mass of shrubbery momentarily seems to transport the film somewhere else. You feel this too even during the film’s midpoint diversion into WWI where Fawcett served, allowing for an obligatory wartime re-enactment. Alas, this does not pulse with the same life force as the extended sequence’s concluding shot in which Fawcett lays in the dust and gas and sees a canopy of streaming light through trees, foreshadowing the film’s haunting final shot, not to be revealed, in which reality and fantasy blur, the overriding sensation of “The Lost City of Z.”
Though Fawcett’s quest seems readymade for a descent into Herzog-ian madness, Gray resists that route, becoming more wrapped up in the romanticism of his protagonist’s quest, much in the way that author David Grann did in his book on which the film is based. This is not the true life tale of Percy Fawcett; this is a tall tale told with wonder. The film’s denouement, in which Fawcett and his son’s voyage into the wild, never to return, has all the elements of tragedy only to forge an alternate route, beginning with a kind of ceremoniously elegiac trip to Amazonia, an in-advance hero’s welcome. Where once Fawcett’s trip down the Rio Verde was played for pain and suffering, here it is played for serenity, and that is what Hunnam evokes in Fawcett’s final moments on screen – serenity, not regret. In going out to try and find what he is looking for, “The Lost City of Z” intrinsically, movingly suggests that Fawcett has already found it.