“Mankind awaits our discoveries.” And such is the pressure Percy Fawcett places upon himself and his team of explorers as they set out to find The Lost City Of Z. Or Eldorado, or The City Of Gold. But this is no ‘80s cartoon adaptation. Instead writer director James Gray goes all Francis Ford Coppola in delivering a journey into a heart of darkness. So much so that he even asked Coppola for advice on shooting in the jungle, the response coming, “Don’t do it”. Thankfully, and to his brave credit, Gray ignored the advice and the locations alone are worth a trip to The Lost City Of Z’s.
Based on David Grann’s non-fiction novel about Fawcett’s journey, the film refuses to speculate too much, at least until the end, and instead charts the passions and determination of a man hellbent on making a name for himself. But, like much of Gray’s work, City Of Z is never just one thing. Told over many years and charting Fawcett’s three trips up the Amazon as well as his time in the trenches in World War I, The Lost City Of Z is, like the jungle itself, an immersive, hypnotic and lavish drama.
As Fawcett, played with damaged determination by Charlie Hunnam, sets off to Brazil he leaves his young son and wife Nina (Sienna Miller) knowing full well his task of mapping the disputed border between Boliva and Brazil will see him absent from their lives for many years. Along the way he recruits his right hand man Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and encounters angry tribes, blood thirsty piranhas and enough humid mosquito swatting to have you itching.
At times Gray is content to just journey the river with Fawcett, often in a languid and repetitious manner. But when the true purpose of it all kicks into gear, around an hour into proceedings, you begin to see the genius that Gray has been quietly seeding. Because as Fawcett’s life is engulfed by his obsession so we witness his wife expected to be nothing more than a mother, despite her being her husband’s intellectual equal. The Royal Geographical Society meanwhile talk of savages in the Amazon as they arrogantly bicker in childish ways, happy to have the women in the room look from afar as they gaze upon the ‘superior’ men. And they dare call them savages.
But the real sell in, and what will have City of Z lasting long in the memory is Gray’s exploration of the father son relationship between Fawcett and his eldest son Jack, in the latter half played by latest Spider-Man Tom Holland. At first Jack resents his father, then he resents the lack of appreciation his father’s actions received during The War before finally being inspired by him. It makes the climax all the more heartbreaking.
Indeed Gray’s entire film is designed to never answer the question of what really happened to Fawcett. The opening shot of a tribesman silhouetted against burning torches as a river stretches out before him lingers in the mind. By the end this shot is given context, but only in so far as generating a haunting set of possibilities in your mind. The natural lighting of the torches kissing the black surface of the water only adds to the eerie, and oppressive, effect of a voyage into the unknown.
A throwback to the way films used to be made, The Lost City Of Z is an immersive, compelling and deeply satisfying journey, both geographically and emotionally into the unknown.