Adapted from David Grann’s 2009 book of the same name, The Lost City of Z sees the welcome return of director James Gray (The Immigrant) in a highly ambitious project. The film is a semi-biographical account in the life of legendary British explorer Percy Fawcett and follows his adventures in the uncharted Amazonian territories. Gray – a director well versed in the glory days of British cinema – pays homage to the films he loves as he takes his audience on an unrelenting journey in search of what Fawcett called the “City of Z”, an ancient settlement deep in the heart of the Amazon.
Set in the early part of the 20th century and within the realm of a soon to be defunct British empire, the film stars Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy, Pacific Rim) as Major Percy Fawcett, a lowly army officer belittled by his superiors and in need of restoring his family name from an undisclosed scandal. When he is called upon by The Royal Geographical Society to take a voyage to the Bolivian jungle to map out its borders with Brazil, Fawcett jumps at the opportunity to prove himself to his superiors. Despite the dangers he encounters, he soon falls deeply in love with the Amazon and its people.
Hunnam’s curious casting in this role can at first seem a little puzzling; his mid-Atlantic drawl feels misplaced in a world of cut-glass English accents. However it soon becomes apparent that Gray is less interested in presenting a completely accurate historical piece and more in telling a story about a man consumed by his passion. Hunnam is deeply likeable in this role, and his wide-eyed wonderment is rather endearing, even when he misses the mark.
Leaving his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) behind, Fawcett arrives in the Bolivian jungle with his second-in-command, a quiet man by the name of Costin (Robert Pattinson). Together with a ragtag of misfits and hired guns, the group makes its way up the river, where they are met by hostile natives and unfavourable surroundings. Pattinson delivers an impressively subtle, yet brilliant performance. Miller is excellent as Nina, she puts in the most natural performance of the film and delivers every single line as if her life depended on it. Her character is supportive of Percy, yet also refers to herself as an independent woman – perhaps a hint at her suffragette credentials.
It would be far too easy to dismiss The Lost City Of Z as simply mimicking films such as Aguirre, The Wrath Of God (Herzog, 1972), or even Apocalypse Now (Coppola, 1979); however the film is a genuinely touching story about fighting for what you believe in. Gray may not always get it right – his dialogue is clunky at best, and at 2 hours 20 minutes, the film could lose at least half an hour of filler narrative and lengthy exposition. Ignoring all that, the film is at its best when it shows the hardship its protagonists are prepared to go through to reach a mythical place that might not even exist. This is what makes The Lost City Of Z into a film about faith and trust. It is also a film which harks back to an era of courageous filmmaking, and for that James Gray should be commended.