Having returned from his first cartographic expedition along the then-untraced Bolivian-Peruvian border, Percy Harrison Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is prompted to deliver a speech before the membership of the Royal Geographical Society. At first glance, it is a failure. Instead of a gracious, uncontroversial thanks to the Society for funding his mission, followed by a pleasant, exotic anecdote or two of what he saw, Fawcett disturbs the hall of card-carrying rational-minded men by zeroing in on a detail that has seized his mind: in the jungle, he trod upon shards of pottery and witnessed a sculpture of a face, peering out from the woven knots of an Amazonian tree. How did this get here? According to the prevailing thought in British scientific discovery, it should not be there. Fawcett does not stop there: in an impassioned declaration of faith, he argues down all retorts, carrying on in scene-bridging voiceover and a conversation with his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) in which he rails against the fossilized thoughts of the people surrounding him, unable to see because of the “bigotry” of the Christian church, refusing to take him seriously because they have nothing to gain by doing so.
Like most period pieces then, The Lost City of Z relies on our vantage point as “modern” viewers to piece together the impact of what we are seeing: Fawcett, for his time, seems to be relatively enlightened — he posits that there’s nothing to say that indigenous life couldn’t have developed at an equal or superior rate to Western civilization, and in addition to his words, he practices non-violence when he encounters, on later expeditions, indigenous tribes, having intentionally taken small groups of crew members and companions to disturb the country they are visiting as little as possible. Isn’t this set in 1907? The director and writer, James Gray, has suggested he chose to elevate some of Fawcett’s statements over others that were not so humane — Fawcett’s writing about how there are “three kinds of Indians,” for example — yet the rest of his behaviour is sourced directly from David Grann’s book of the same name, a best-selling archival deep-dive into Fawcett’s life.
There are a number of different films that could have been made from Grann’s book, yet Gray has not made a tale of malaria-stricken survival, apt to make the viewer, as Fawcett did upon first returning from the Amazon, glad to see straight roads, breakfast, pedestrian sources of noise, and newspapers, the “glorious prospect of home”; nor has he chosen the path of an Apocalypse Now redux, as is apparently now bankable to do so (Kong: Skull Island and, it appears, War for the Planet of the Apes, directed by Matt Reeves, Gray’s once-time screenwriting partner); nor has he made a noble, serious drama in which we note the ways in which Fawcett was right or not for his time and how this has or hasn’t left a dent in “our” collective political histories.
Instead, Gray has made a film about quiet obsession, the obsessions of status and legacy and personal understanding, the intense emotional feeling of a person intent on connecting their life with something grander than themselves, and, yes, the particular clarity of criticism that is sometimes found in those who are kept outside of the world’s seats of relative comfort — Fawcett wasn’t against Christianity or colonial consumption and cultural genocide because he was a great person, but because he was against everything hallowed by the class structures that had excluded him. In assembling this film, Gray and cinematographer Darius Khondji regard Fawcett’s resourcefulness, his ability to lead, and his care with others in an ever-evolving way: at times he looks like a national hero, at others a spy in a boardroom, at still others an outsider who simply wishes to fit in, if not in the country of his birth, then anywhere that will accept him — it seems worth noting that, once he puts a concrete name to his personal quest, the never-explained “Z” he is looking for is not gold or oil or anything he could take home, but an entire discredited city.
At times, what The Lost City of Z most resembles is Martin Scorsese’s Silence — Gray’s film is more likely to be compared to the light and shadow of Gordon Willis, an era Scorsese has left behind, and Gray has also supplied a list of baroque and post-impressionist painters that served as guide to the unfamiliar task of shooting in Colombian forest, but both films have a very careful sense of having thought out exactly why the camera should be positioned, not for the sake of imageboards or the accomplishment of a long take, but because both films, in their complicated relationship to experiential transference, are concerned with ways of seeing. The camera shows Fawcett at his most accomplished, at his warmest, but also from a distance — not the distance of unsubtle long shots or rigorously composed tableaux, but the distance that allows at least a moment of second-guessing. Gray isn’t a radical filmmaker — he hasn’t re-positioned the story like Chantal Akerman did to Almayer’s Folly. At most, in his attention to the way Fawcett is complicit in the slavery of indigenous people and the restriction of his wife and family, Gray is close to someone like Kenji Mizoguchi, a filmmaker routinely praised for how he depicted women suffocated by men focused on their own artistic pursuits, an approach that, in its refusal to make ultimate judgments for the viewer, urgently presenting the images as an irresolvable mixture of desires fulfilled and thwarted, seems out of step with much contemporary historical analysis — it doesn’t do the critical work for us.
Of course, Gray is still consciously trying to avoid the pitfalls of the genre. Instead of a historically rearranging Fawcett’s life to match the ideals of the present, there is a understated push — we grasp, as he travels to and from South America, some of the wrong he is doing (and not obsessing about). On each trip, there appears an oracle-like figure that tells him, in so many words, of the level of ignorance he possesses. But there is the sense that as far as Gray has gone in making this film, and the many technical qualities it has, there is still some measure of incoherence — for example, with Nina, we understand how she has been forced into a life of walls because of Fawcett’s compulsion to seek his own sublime. Yet Gray reduces her character, already small in the book, into a lonely mother (who learns some methods of navigation, she says in one scene), rather than almost the entire effort behind her husband’s reputation, her media work and correspondence reduced to a single letter in the film, crumpled and burned by Fawcett. Perhaps this, like so many questions of balance, can be considered as part of the editing and streamlining decisions and compromises that lead to a movie that, even at over two hours, never flags, that manages to co-exist, like the studio artists Gray tends to reference, in the realm of entertainment and personal narrative. There’s a great deal more here than in most historically-inclined American films; The Lost City of Z seems like a film that would doubtless give up more on future viewings, and yet, on the whole, it appears as a single step forward, a sober, incorruptible work of beauty, rather than a fearless leap into the unknown.