The Lost City of Z (that’s “Zed” for you Americans!) was well-acted, without great flaw in its technical elements or even direction. But for failing to justify the necessity of its own existence, it only earns 2 out of 5.
This dramatization of real-life explorer Percy Fawcett stretches from 1905-1925 and tells the long and winding story of his fascination with the uncharted Amazonian jungles. We meet Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) as an undecorated major in the British army trying to live down the shame of his alcoholic father. Even though he has a strong, vivacious wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), and charming son, he longs for “action” that will prove his worth to others, fulfill his love for adventure, and enrich the knowledge and prestige of the Empire. He accepts a role with the Royal Geography Society surveying and mapping in South America, a long, dangerous mission that claims the lives of many crewmembers. Fawcett finds a few shards of beautiful pottery near the farthest point of his long journey, and vows to return to discover what he believes to be an ancient civilization far more advanced than Europeans would credit possible to “savages.” This mission drives his actions from here on out, sustaining him through more journeys, an expanding family of children, and even service in the Great War.
The film is fairly well-made. Hunnam plays a convincing British officer, Miller gives a sorrowful and complex performance as Nina, and Robert Pattinson is excellent as Fawcett’s fellow explorer Henry Costin. James Gray‘s direction helps you feel the mystery, danger, sweat and blood of the jungle, and Christopher Spelman’s music helps to keep you riding the correct level of emotional investment as the film goes on.
Unfortunately, the biggest takeaway from The Lost City of Z was the feeling that the world doesn’t need this film.
Hunnam’s performance can’t outweigh the fact that Fawcett’s character has been written too haphazardly to make sense. Is his motivation to rescue his family’s name? Is it, as he proclaims elsewhere, “for glory”? Is it to enlighten his countrymen to the humanity of the natives living in South America? (And if so, why does he ignore his wife’s need to assert her own humanity, instead leaving her to raise three children completely alone while he adventures for years on end?). Or is it for the beauty and mystery of each individual experience – an idea absent from the entire film that barges in at the end in several quotable lines like “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp – or what’s heaven for?” All in all, the film feels uncomfortably like Yet Another Story About a White Man Who Wants Adventure. Fawcett’s gaze is, by default, Colonialism. Natives are exoticized and almost magical; our protagonist is nearly always a picture of the earnest White Savior, even though he shoves his ambitious wife into stifling domesticity and slaps his children for giving him sass. The film might have honestly been stronger if we were meant to watch with growing horror as the hero spirals into an unhealthy obsession (ala Vertigo or The Prestige), sacrificing relationships and happiness along the way. But we aren’t; by the end, it seems we are to be truly inspired by him. Perhaps if Fawcett had more to draw on other than a few pieces of broken pottery and his vivid imagination, we could champion his exploits more fully as he fought his way to a dazzling discovery. The story we are given, however, is somewhere in-between, and inspires neither strategic dismay nor unmitigated enthusiasm.
Christian Worldview Elements / Spiritual Themes
There are many worldview elements that weave in and out of the script seemingly at random, without one consistent grounding factor. There are many conversations where characters champion the equality of the sexes and races, but later speak or behave in opposing ways. Our hero is said to condemn the North American slave trade, but then barters for slaves of his own during his time in the jungle. To encourage one another, characters share sentiments such as “We have never let fear determine our future,” and “Nothing will happen to us that is not our destiny.” The only mentions of religion or Christianity come when a native refers to two white men as “Christians,” and when the European Church is referenced as being threatened that an older and more advanced civilization could have existed in the Amazon before its time. A fortune teller with a ouija board is briefly featured in one scene, telling a man that he must follow the vision in his head if he is ever to find peace.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers)
- MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, brief strong language and some nudity
- Language/Profanity: One F-word; a few mild instances such as “bastard,” “bloody,” “d–n” and the use of God’s name.
- Sexuality/Nudity: A husband and wife kiss several times, and are seen in bed and in nightclothes. Several scenes feature Amazonian tribespeople wearing only loincloths.
- Violence/Frightening/Intense: Animals are shot (for sport or for food) several times. Natives fire arrows at other men several times, often hitting their mark. Men become wounded or sick from their time in the jungle. A man vomits black fluid. It is implied that piranhas attack a man underwater, killing him. A man has whip scars on his back. A man shoots off another man’s ear. A few scenes of WW1 are shown, including trench warfare and a violent advance where many men are shot and killed. A tribe is found to be cannibals when a charred (not overly graphic) human corpse is seen over a fire. A man slaps a teenage boy across the face very hard. Men are exposed to chlorine gas during a battle.
Drugs/Alcohol: Men are shown smoking and drinking on several occasions.
The Bottom Line
RECOMMENDED FOR: Those who want to see David Grann’s book realized on screen (though, spoilers, I hear it’s more fiction than nonfiction). Fans of slow-moving films that span across decades, who enjoy analyzing a protagonist.
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: Those who are tired of movies about the male ego and waterlust; those who are expecting a faithful biography of real-life events; or those who are in the market for exploration and adventure movies that move beyond the theme of “how can this romp help teach our white characters new lessons?”
The Lost City of Z, directed by James Gray, opened in limited theaters April 14, 2017, wide April 21. It runs 141 minutes and stars Charlie Hunnam, Sienna Miller, Robert Pattinson, Tom Holland, Edward Ashley, and Angus Macfadyen. Watch the trailer for The Lost City of Z here.
Debbie Holloway is a storyteller, creator, critic and advocate having adventures in Brooklyn, New York.
Publication date: April 21, 2017