Rigorously old fashioned, James Gray’s visually gorgeous The Lost City of Z tells the story – in semi-Herzogian fashion – of Col. Percival Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a British explorer who disappeared in the Amazon in the 1920s while searching for a supposed lost city. Gray’s previous film, The Immigrant, was also a stunning period piece but, this time, he really breaks out of his comfort zone – his pictures are typically set in New York – both in terms of setting and tone and the result is a hypnotic and occasionally mysterious epic.
Fawcett is a military man at the turn of the 20th century who has been stationed in Ireland, but his career is seemingly going nowhere. One of his superiors suggests his taking a trip to the Amazon for mapmaking purposes but, once there, Fawcett becomes fascinated with a rumored lost civilization in the jungle that he comes to call Zed. During his first trip, he finds some ancient pottery that he believes is a clue to finding the city. For much of the rest of his life, he keeps returning to seek out the lost city, much to the chagrin of his wife (Sienna Miller) and three children whom he hardly knows.
The Lost City of Z tells the story of an obsessive’s quest, much like Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God. The older he gets, the more determined Fawcett is to realize his dream of discovering Zed, which he intends to use as proof to the British society from which he hails that the Amazon has a culture as unique, ancient and complex as his own. His companion in travel is Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), who shares Fawcett’s obsession – at least, up to a point.
On his second quest into the heart of the jungle, Fawcett finds a nemesis in James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), who formerly took part in one of Ernest Shackleton’s expeditions to the North Pole. Murray’s pomposity and foolish behavior near destroys Fawcett’s second expedition and their quarrel is later revived after their return to England.
Gray’s films meticulously provide a sense of place, whether it’s in New York milieus of the 21st (Two Lovers) or early 19th century (The Immigrant), and The Lost City of Z is equally as immersive. During Fawcett’s travels, there is always a sense of unease – the jungle is, after all, a place that can eat you alive – but the filmmakers don’t make the mistake of portraying the story of a pious white man amid the savages. For all purposes, Fawcett abandons his family for his explorations, while Murray and his ilk are near insufferable and care little for the natives through whose land they travel.
The Lost City of Z is often spellbinding and it ends on a mysterious and slightly open ended note. It’s often visually breathtaking and Hunnam’s performance here is easily his best to date. Pattinson also continues to prove that he appears more at ease in independent films than in big budget Hollywood extravaganzas and he disappears into his role. Gray’s film is an old fashioned – and I mean that as a compliment – story of the type that is rarely made these days. It’s not a film for short attention spans, but those who give themselves over to it will be duly rewarded.