THE LOST CITY OF Z opens in the darkness of the jungle. Natives stand in silhouette outlined against fires burning in warning or in welcome. It’s a fitting start to James Gray’s suitably literate adaptation of David Grann’s book of the same name, telling the true story of the obsessions that drove British Major Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) at start of the last century. By examining this life, one of danger, disappointment, and sublime purpose, Gray and Grann do more than tell a cracking good story on a par with the fictionalized exploits penned by H. Rider Haggard or Edgar Rice Burroughs, they contemplate the incomparable joy and driving madness found in the quest for greatness, making the Grail of secondary importance.
Fawcett’s journey begins in Ireland, where as an officer past the first bloom of youth, he longs for glory and a few medals to pin on his dress uniform. It’s not just for himself, but to give his son, Jack, a redeemed family name. His chance comes by way of a surveying mission to the Amazon, there to establish the border between Bolivia and Brazil, thus insuring the uninterrupted, and very lucrative, rubber trade. The kindly masters of the Royal Geographic Society, sensing his disappointment, add that mapping so much uncharted territory will also make his reputation. Never mind the two or three years away, the poisonous snakes, the deadly diseases, and the natives with their penchant for killing strangers, if he survives, it will all be worth it. His wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), nicknamed Cheeky for her independent spirit, agrees, sending him off with a smile and the news that she’ll be giving birth soon.
Joined by intrepid and way aide-de-camp Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), he embarks on the fateful journey that will lead him places no European has seen and, after finding a few potsherds and carvings where they shouldn’t be, the obsession to prove that he has found the evidence of a civilization more ancient than his own, and just as sophisticated. Even after he returns to England only to be met with derision at the idea that “savages” could have accomplished what he proposes.
For an epic film, THE LOST CITY OF Z has a very human scale, with Hunnam driving the emotional juggernaut. Not with melodrama, but with a quiet madness, the kind that sends him wading over to the natives throwing spears at him, waving a handkerchief and repeating the world “amigo” over and over as his companions look on in horror. This is anything but a one-note performance, though. There is passion, and a palpable inner conflict of wanting to be a social success with the British elite, and also flying in the face of their most dearly cherished beliefs A situation perfectly analogized by James Murray (Angus MacFayden), a pig-tailed and porcine member of the aristocracy who finances Fawcett’s second expedition, and then becomes the literal and metaphorical drag upon it when he can’t shake his innate sense of class entitlement. Pattinson is equally good at Costin. Behind owlish glasses and a beard, there is a refined sense of irony that watches one of those ci-mention snakes curl around Fawcett’s feet and languidly comments that he might be too English for the jungle. A fact that may or may not be proven by the way they address each other as Mr. and Major for most of the decades of travel and friendship. Miller, too, makes her mark, with a luminous performance that is equal parts heart and toughness.
As a subtle but distinct subtext, Gray uses his film to ask us to consider the relative meaning of civilization in theory and practice. The cutting dead of an inferior in a British country house, against the reasons behind cannibalism in the jungle. The carnage of trench warfare in World War I against the symbiotic harmony in which the native live in their jungle. A plantation owner introducing opera and slavery to the native population.
In using touches of magical realism that show us Fawcett’s inner eye that never leaves the jungle, by the end of the film, the verdant green landscape of rural England somehow pales in splendor with the lush tropics, making of us collaborators in Fawcett’s obsession. An obsession that seems the height of nobility of spirit, and of folly as it separates him from his beloved wife, and drives a wedge between him and his eldest son, Jack (Tom Holland), that, ironically, only the jungle can heal.
A fine thread of madness runs through THE LOST CITY OF Z, from Nina’s daring desire to wear trousers, if only society would accept it, to an indian’s tale of an ancient city of gold, dismissed by Fawcett as the ramblings of a broken slave, to Murray’s breakdown in the face of the hardships of the jungle, to Fawcett’s own pursuit of that eponymous location. As with Grey’s demand that we reconsider what is meant by civilization, so he invites us to ponder madness as something multifaceted. Thrilling and humbling, THE LOST CITY OF Z is a thing of harsh yet enthralling beauty. As much as journey of the mind as a trek through terra incongnita, and just as rewarding in its gifts.