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In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a race to find the most monumental discovery in uncharted parts of the planet. Ernest Shackleton and Richard Burton were awarded fame and fortune for their adventures, during which they faced harsh conditions, disease, and hostile indigenous peoples. Percy Fawcett, the hero of James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, represents one of the last of these explorers. Gray’s film is a grand adventure, the sort that uses classic techniques but is never old-fashioned. By letting the story speak for itself, Gray unearths the crucial difference between curiosity and dominance.
Charlie Hunnam plays Fawcett, and he is in every single scene. The yearning for adventure is not immediate: At first, Percy complains to his wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), that his tenure in the English army has yielded few medals. When The Royal Geographical Society offers Percy the chance to chart a river in the Bolivian jungle, he sees an opportunity to redeem himself. Alongside his aide Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), Percy treks into the jungle and nearly starves on his journey to the river’s source. He also finds some intriguing archeological discoveries, suggesting that an ancient city may have once existed deep in the Amazon. Colleagues laugh off his hypothesis, and yet Percy prepares a second journey into Bolivia. He is certain the city, nicknamed “Zed,” is waiting for him.
The Lost City of Z covers nearly thirty years and never feels rushed. Gray’s strategy is to follow the David Lean school of epic storytelling: He focuses on the most exciting/peculiar incidents, letting them play out deliberately, so the drawn-out action mirrors the passing of time. There is an agonizing early sequence where indigenous people attack a riverboat, and one of Percy’s underlings is eaten alive by piranhas. Gray does not dwell on blood or the queasy realities of jungle life and instead provides his audience a sense of gnawing desperation. The compositions are frequently beautiful—he shot on 35mm film—and the soft edges of celluloid smooths the image as if the film itself is a long-lost artifact.
The sequences between the South American voyages could have been perfunctory. Nina objects to Percy leaving for years at a time, and their son Jack (Tom Holland) outright resents his absence. But the mannered dialogue has a way of elevating the emotional stakes—each word carries significant heft—and the actors all strike a superb balance between heartbreak and stoic resolve. By the time Percy embarks on his third journey to the Amazon, now bringing Jack with him, the Fawcetts coalesce into something grander than a family. They realize they’re extraordinary, both in fortitude and resolve, and Gray has enough skill to have us share in their desire for glory.
In between battle scenes and carefully composed jungle vistas, there are enough small flourishes to give the film a personal touch. Pattinson disappears into his role—the thick beard hides his high cheekbones—and his understated comic delivery is a welcome reprieve. There are some bold editing choices, harking back to Lawrence of Arabia and 2001: A Space Odyssey, so Gray’s nods to cinematic history are a shorthand way to expand the film’s scope.
Percy’s third voyage to Bolivia ended in his untimely death, but there are so few specifics that Gray has license to imagine what could have happened. The subtext of the final voyage is that the West had already corrupted the jungle, so the indigenous treat Percy/Jack with hostility, instead of friendship. With Jack in tow, Percy arrives at a transcendence; his probable final minutes are not filled with fear. Percy speaks measuredly, waxing poetic about how remarkable lives are better than mundane ones, and it is to Hunnam’s credit that Percy is convincing. His words mirror how to feel about the film: regret for the outcome and gratitude for the journey.
The Lost City of Z opens Friday at Arclight Bethesda and Angelika Film Center Mosaic.