Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland, Edward Ashley, Angus Macfadyen, Ian McDiarmid, Clive Francis, Pedro Coello
Director: James Gray
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
With unfussy assuredness, writer-director James Gray's The Lost City of Z emerges as a vision of two separate, yet intrinsically linked, tales of obsession. The first concerns archaeologist and explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) who spent the better part of his adult life searching for a fabled civilization deep in the Amazon rainforest at the dawn of the 20th century. The second is the tale of a filmmaker searching for his own version of transcendence through the art of emotional and character-based cinema. If Fawcett remains an enigmatic figure--driven with spiritual fervor to uncover something beyond the reaches of the human mind--then Gray, too, feeds off this same kind of yearning. This is a film for which every shot, detour, and catalogue of Amazonian scenery is instilled with a melodramatic aura which never announces itself as such. In a way, Gray's version of melodrama is to nod toward the ineffable madness of Apocalypse Now and Fitzcarraldo before tilting the other direction into a character study about man whose motivations remain elusive. That is the essential element of obsession. It consumes and moves one to enter the furthest reaches of hell without a logical reason, and The Lost City of Z brilliantly capitalizes on this idea.
This is not to say that Fawcett did not have his reasons for continuously journeying into the Brazilian jungle in hopes of finding the titular city; chief among them proving his mettle as a respectable Englishman after his father's disastrous Army career. Then there's his belief that nonwhite civilizations may be more advanced than western society, but such anti-colonial rhetoric could also be seen as overcompensation for his own selfish need to integrate himself into "exotic" environments. Structurally, Gray deflates our expectations by having Fawcett and his crew, which includes trustworthy companions, Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley) get close to achieving their goal, only to be sent back home to England with little to no concrete evidence of their experiences. During one extended sequence, Fawcett delivers a fiery sermon to a crowd of bewildered aristocrats about his desire to prove that the so-called "savages" are far more advanced than commonly believed. During another, he engages in emotionally-wrought exchanges with his wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), who wishes to explore her own version of transcendence, whether that be traveling into the heart of darkness with her husband or convincing him that he's essentially abandoning his family. In both instances, Fawcett shows flashes of integrity and all-consuming hubris.
Unlike most standard period epics about exploration and adventure, The Lost City of Z is uncharacteristically more interested in the internal purgatory of the mind than the geographical space of the jungle. Though there are literal dangers along the way (snakes, flying arrows, illness), Gray is focused on man's need to erase himself as someone existing to take orders, file rank, and report to king and country. To this end, Hunnam creates a believable portrait of someone whose rugged charisma and single-minded longing for the sublime drives him to eventually exploit his own son (played by Tom Holland as a teenager) who simply yearns to have a relationship with his distant father.
Resisting the urge for stylistic formalism (unlike, say, the showy bombast of The Revenant), Gray's picture remains a visual marvel (shot by gifted cinematographer Darius Khondji) while always remaining firmly rooted in character and emotional truthfulness. The film's final scenes, in which Fawcett and his boy are surrounded by a tribe of Amazonian natives luminously lit by candles, takes on the feeling of an ephemeral dream where transcendence and destruction are intertwined. Gray and Fawcett's drive toward obsessive desire are also intertwined; a tale of two wanderers searching for their own means of moving beyond ordinary lines of vision.