In this age of connectivity, it is strange to imagine a time when the world was not at our fingertips, when much of the globe remained unmapped. That mystery bred fear and trepidation in most, but to a select few it granted something else: a fervent, obsessive desire to discover. The Lost City of Z, the latest film by director James Gray (The Immigrant, Two Lovers) explores such themes through the true-life story of British explorer Colonel Percival “Percy” Fawcett, whose pursuit of an ancient city deep within the Amazon became a lifelong obsession.
The story begins in the early years of the 20th century with Percy Fawcett (a career best Charlie Hunnam) struggling to overcome the stuffy classicism of British society. Seeing an opportunity to advance himself and his wife Nina (a wonderful Sienna Miller), Percy accepts the opportunity to map an unexplored region of the Amazon. The journey, though perilous, leads to the discovery of artifacts that may prove the indigenous peoples’ civilizations predate those of Britannia. This bold claim leads Percy to fame and controversy. Ridiculed and revered in equal measure by the scientific community and the British elite, Percy nevertheless manages to gather funding to mount a number of other expeditions, becoming increasingly obsessed with what he believes to be a lost city deep in the jungle, which he has labeled “Z” (pronounced zed).
The Lost City of Z is a fantastic film: both an adventure and an in-depth character study presented in a deft and striking manner. Its deliberate pace allows the viewer to experience the wonder and dread that Percy feels when he first arrives in the Amazon. The excitement and color of these segments provide a striking contrast to the muted affairs of his home life when he returns to Britain. The only time he seems alive is when he must defend his discoveries before a board of his peers. You feel his anger and frustration as he tries to present his findings to the British elite, tries to make them look past their pride to understand the truth that though a world power, they might not have been first in all things.
Through his journeys, Percy becomes an advocate for the native peoples of the Amazon, thinking of himself as a bridge between them and western civilization. It’s fascinating then to see that his progressive nature only stretches so far as he forbids his wife from accompanying him on his explorations, leaving her to raise their children alone for years at a time. These odd contrasts are what make Percy such an intriguing, complex, and vexing character. He obviously cares for his family and his wife, but the call of the Amazon is too much for him to resist. Time and again he chooses return, drawn by an obsessive need that only grows stronger as the years roll on. Even within the trenches of World War One, facing certain death, his thoughts are not of his family, but of the jungle and the fabled city that eludes him.
Charlie Hunnam is the beating heart of this film. His Percy is a driven, stubborn man who constantly seems to be at war with himself over what he wants. The cause for his misfortune at the onset of the film—his father was a drunkard and gambler, crippling his class mobility—serves as a plausible foundation for his obsessive need for acceptance. However, that can only remain his driving force for so long and soon Z becomes his only motivation. Hunnam’s nuanced, careful performance deftly handles this handoff in a subtle manner that is both realistic and tragic. Though Percy comes to gain what he originally sought, it isn’t enough and eventually, neither is his growing family. All of this makes for a compelling and frustrating main character that you support and condemn in equal measure: a rarity in modern film. Though the writing should also be credited for Percy’s success as a character, it is Hunnam’s stellar performance that keeps the audience keenly invested in his quest until the very end.
Sienna Miller is also a highlight as Percy’s long-suffering wife, Nina. Unfairly saddled with the responsibility of raising their family alone, Nina remains a steadfast advocate for her husband, even as he betrays his promises to stay again and again. However, Nina is never portrayed as a pushover and she makes Percy consider the full weight of his actions every time he seeks to leave. Miller succeeds in showing Nina’s strength and resolve as a woman in an incredibly sexist time period while also remaining vulnerable; every time Percy chooses to leave Nina, it hurts and Miller explores this hurt in subtly different ways in each segment of the film. Like Hunnam’s Percy, Miller’s Nina is not the same person who she was at the onset of the story, and it’s an accomplishment of both writing and performance that the film manages to have a full arc for two wildly different characters within the span of two-and-a-half hours.
Lastly, Robert Pattinson plays Percy’s aide de camp, Henry Costin. He too has a memorable arc, starting as an aimless alcoholic with a knack for mapping, he eventually becomes Percy’s most reliable friend and advocate. Despite his support of Percy’s pursuit of Z, Costin comes to represent the voice of reason in the film. Though proud of their work in their expeditions, his life is more than the jungle, serving as a point of conflict between the two characters as the film progresses. Pattinson is one of the most promising, daring actors working today and I continue to be impressed with the diversity and strength of his performances. His work here as Costin is truly inspired; Pattinson walks the tightrope between reliable friend and well-mean devil’s advocate in a way that contrasts perfectly with Hunnam’s strained, unflagging drive.
Though mainly a performance piece, the work of the actors would mean nothing without the remarkable script by writer/director James Gray. How he wrestled such a broad and detailed book into so sprawling, yet concise a film is beyond me. His characters are filled with life, have fully realized stories, and grow, change, and regress in a number of compelling ways. His artful direction, further realized by cinematographer Darius Khondji (Midnight in Paris, Se7en, Delicatessen), presents the Amazon in a spellbinding, multifaceted manner; it’s dangerous and beautiful, ancient and exciting, filled with wonder as well as dread.
A triumph of classic filmmaking, The Lost City of Z is one of the best film’s I’ve seen this year. It’s a story of obsession and need, both epic in scope and painfully intimate. I would be satisfied with nominations for Hunnam, Miller, and Pattinson, as well as the script, direction, and cinematography; it’s really that good. James Gray has created something truly special here. See it and experience the wonder of the Amazon and the tantalizing promise of Z.