Dir. James Gray. Starring Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller
Would it be a movie about fin-de-siécle Englishman without a stag hunt? It’s how The Lost City of Z begins, showing us how Percy Fawcett (Hunnam) is not like the other men. The other military men going on this hunt are not his equals in horsemanship. Several of them go down hard as they ride in pursuit of the stag, but Fawcett leaps over stone walls and pushes his horse on faster than the others can go. It appears that the strategy for most of the others is to use their numerical superiority to envelop the stag and then share the kill. Fawcett is not interested; by the time the deer is down and he kneeling in front of it, the other men are only just riding up. He is the kind of man who goes it alone, if necessary, driven by his ambition, and powerfully decisive. The only encumbrances he is willing to accept are his wife and child, who he returns to immediately after the hunt.
There’s a very conservative quality to The Lost City of Z, not so much for its subject matter or its ethos as its screenplay. It’s scrupulously organized—symbolic character-building moments in the first five minutes, subdued motivations revealed in the next ten, buildup of protagonist’s obsession from then on, tasteful asides to family and World War I, etc.—and it’s proof that clear organization can be a perfectly fertile zone for creativity. For James Gray’s foray into the jungle, there’s no Fitzcarraldo or Apocalypse Now debacle to make a documentary about. James Gray’s textbook screenplay is not unlike Steven Spielberg’s textbook visuals; it may be a little safe on its own, but the best case scenario is that it creates a solid base for the film to do something interesting. The Lost City of Z fulfills that promise in totally counterintuitive ways. It is an adventure movie with little action, with its most rousing scenes taking place in the chambers of the Royal Geographic Society. There is no gunfire. Unnecessary spoiler, but the lost city of Z stays that way. The characters are often in boats, but there is no African Queen moment with rapids to fight. (It does share some arrows in much the same style that arrows are fired on the boat in Fitzcarraldo.) European contact with the Indians is common, but the Europeans of this movie don’t try to change them as they do in The Mission. Nor is the Amazon turned into some particularly dangerous or exotic place; The Lost City of Z ain’t Predator. It is beautiful and mysterious in the ways that provoke the mind, and for Percy Fawcett it’s a potent provocation. The jungle just happens to be secondary: the screenplay has provided his motivation in the early going. A thirst for glory, coupled with the shame of his father’s life, has made him willing to undergo great hazard for great gain. What makes all of this work is that the film never insists. It does not tug on your arm to make you care. Either you come along for this ride or you don’t—based on the movie’s virtues in the first twenty minutes or so—and that’s where the film’s audacity shines through.
What makes The Lost City of Z is first and foremost Darius Khondji’s photography. Not every choice works for me—I’ve never really cared for the 75% Barry Lyndon interiors treatment that so much of the early part of the movie uses—but then you get into the jungle and the world is haze. There is a yellowish gloam that hangs over the world when people are muddling their way through the Amazon, one reminiscent of the “yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes/The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes” from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” It is precisely that color, and like the fog in “Prufrock” it is not necessarily an aggressive one. It is possessive, though, and that possession, the fact that the Amazon is entirely in control and not the white men hacking through it, is key to The Lost City of Z. Fawcett is at first reluctant to go to the Amazon despite his surveying experience; he doubts that there will be enough action to put medals on his chest or bring him to the forefront of pleasant British society. But once he is there it is clear that he will always stay there. He is warned as much by Tadjui (Pedro Coello), an Indian he persuades to guide him up the river. “I feel sorry for you, English,” Tadjui says. “Soon, I am free. For the Espanol and you, there is no escape from the jungle: only death.” It turns out that Tadjui is right on a literal level, for Fawcett will presumably die in the Amazon. He’s right on the figurative level too; there’s no escape for him once he goes. He gets hooked on it the way that men in later parts of the 20th Century will get hooked on climbing tall mountains or flying fast airplanes. Here is where the photography shines through, however: the Amazon is just England, but with a more powerful hit. Here’s the Amazon.
And here’s Fawcett, still on horseback, as he’s staring down the stag he just shot.
Fawcett takes a drink over that deer and proclaims, in his toast, that death is “the best sauce to life.” The Amazon offers more risk, more death than any bit of England can. (There is no such romance or joy at the Somme, which is photographed entirely in deep grays and with handheld cameras. There’s nothing sporting or exciting or, indeed, laudable about the subsidized murder which Fawcett and some of his jungle explorers take part in; nor is it given the stately bearing of the expeditions, which move smoothly with the camera even in rough circumstances.)
Interestingly, he even comes to relish the company he has in the Amazon. Part of that is undoubtedly that he commands each expedition, arguably the most savory element for any officer in any theater, but he certainly comes to like the men he travels with. (There’s a fairly heated scene in which he shouts down his wife for wanting to come along with him, mostly on the grounds that a woman cannot stand the jungle due to her limited physical strength. Nobody’s perfect.) Costin (Pattinson), a perpetually bearded and mostly sardonic surveyor, becomes an ideal executive officer for Fawcett, blessed with intelligence, experience, initiative, and a trust in the man at the top. Manley (Edward Ashley) is a key contributor as well. Nowhere is it more clear that team chemistry matters than when Fawcett, a little desperate for a chance to find his lost city, takes on another expedition member. James Murray (Angus Macfadyen) is a man of some rank and great experience, having gone with Ernest Shackleton to the South Pole. But he turns out to be immediately useless in the Amazon. He is startlingly out of shape compared to his trim compeers, lags behind, eats far too large a share of the rations, doubts Fawcett’s judgment (especially when that judgment turns out to be wise), wants to resort to gunplay, and in the end sabotages a promising second expedition. The movie judges no one more harshly than Murray, and it’s because he is the one who is most sure of himself. He is the one who is most certain that he is in the right all the time, but he has no proof of his rightness other than the respect he has in England. The jungle, he finds, is no respecter of persons.
The only kind of European who can thrive in the jungle is the one with some humility, even when that means that he sets down exploration. Costin, perhaps more than Fawcett, is the real hero of the story. Costin thrills at the scientific and exploratory aspects of the Amazon, even though he recognizes that it is as difficult a place to survive as there is on Earth. “Mr. Fawcett,” he says at a rowdy meeting of the Royal Geographic Society (not unlike one of those midweek “Ask the Prime Minister” sessions you catch on C-SPAN now and again) “that jungle is hell…but one kind of likes it.” But when Fawcett, an older man and no longer at the peak of his strength, deciding to take his vaguely estranged son Jack (Tom Holland) with him, offers Costin a chance at one last expedition, Costin turns it down. “I can no longer bear the cost,” he says sadly, and we see how uncharacteristically well Costin is dressed, and how gray has started to invade his bushier-than-ever beard. He worries that even finding Z would fail to light the fire which Fawcett has needed lit for decades. He has a family now that he never had before. It turns out to be a wise choice.
The movie spends a lot of time, more than expected, at home with the Fawcetts. Nina (Miller) comes to think of bearing up and waiting for her husband to come home as her own life’s work. Jack, through most stages of his life, views his father’s inconsistent presence and feverish desire to find a lost city that most scientists reject the existence of as proof that Percy does not love his family. The movie, prudently, does not put many words in Fawcett’s mouth to prove his love one way or another. He views what he is doing as a sort of sacrifice for his family’s honor, or at least rationalizes it that way. It makes it clear that he loves his wife, for they rarely quarrel and honestly spend most of their time together smiling and nuzzling. But something else has the first place in his heart; when Fawcett says to Costin in their last meeting that Costin believes Fawcett “romanticizes the significance of Z,” the word “romanticize” has its own significance. Something else is his first love, and it’s made an otherwise honorable man into one who cannot control or wish to confine the extent of his infidelities.