Movies like “The Right Stuff” make people want to be astronauts. Movies like “Superman” make people want to be superheroes. Movies like “The Lost City of Z” make people want to be explorers.
This is not to say, however, that James Gray’s “Lost City of Z,” which is based upon David Grann’s nonfiction book, offers up an optimistic view of exploring. No, Charlie Hunnam’s Percy Fawcett and his various travel companions through the years—including Robert Pattinson’s Henry Costin and Percy’s own son, Jack, played at that point by Tom Holland—deal with everything from filth to starvation to attacks from the local inhabitants. As portrayed, it is a disgusting, awful, business. One which sees few rewards, necessitates spending years at a time away from one’s family, and coming home to children who either don’t remember you or have never seen you in the first place.
The story itself follows Fawcett through several decades beginning at the start of the 20th Century as he mounts several expeditions to the Amazon. While he initially goes from England to South America on a cartographic mission, he soon becomes convinced that an amazing city once existed in the jungle. Although some ridicule him for these notions, Fawcett persists through the years, going on multiple expeditions to attempt to find this lost city, Z, and prove his theories correct. As the time passes, his children grow up, he grows older, and the world changes around him.
Gray’s depiction of all this is beautiful. From the depths of the Amazon to the British countryside, to the trenches of World War I, the viewer is taken on this harrowing journey. We see Fawcett as something of a romantic. He is a man desperately in love with his wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), but also this remote land which he truly believes holds some special secret that is constantly on the verge of being uncovered.
As with tales of other explorers, Fawcett may be willing to trade everything—family included—for the chance to find something memorable, to be proven right; but one never gets the sense watching “Lost City of Z” that the choice is an easy one for him. The man firmly believes that his expeditions will elevate his family for years/generations to come and does it as much for them as for him.
Hunnam makes Fawcett’s various difficulties sing. The actor delivers a wonderful performance, wholly sinking into the role. He gives us Fawcett in good times and bad, at home and abroad, in war and in peace, and constantly yearning. The man yearns for a better life, he yearns to be proven correct, he yearns for his family, he yearns for the Amazon. As portrayed by Hunnam all of these wants merge, coalescing into a man who is great at what he does, great in all endeavors, but perhaps not quite great enough… or perhaps just without the luck he needs to succeed.
It goes beyond that, however. Hunnam gives us a Fawcett who wants all these things, who believes he can get all these things, but whom the audience also wants to see receive them. Fawcett comes off with little hubris, and even when he is prideful, the audience stands firmly alongside him and his convictions. Is it sometimes folly? Of that everyone in the audience will be certain, but Hunnam makes the audience yearn for Fawcett’s success through that pride.
How could we not? It isn’t just that Hunnam is so good, it’s that the worlds Gray has created are palpable. The Amazon in “Lost City of Z” feels almost alive, twisting and turning, so that it’s secrets can be gleaned at one minute and then hidden the next. We know that Fawcett is nearly at his goal despite the scant proof the film offers. What’s more, we want to be there with him as he makes his final, triumphant, discovery.
And, this is where you entered. I could go on and talk about more of the people he encounters and the last trip he makes to the Amazon and just how his children age during his absence and what happens to him in World War I and so much more. But, that might just chip away at some of the wonder of it all; it might lessen one’s yearning to see it all unfold, and that I wouldn’t do.
“The Lost City of Z” makes its audience yearn for the time when there were corners of this world waiting to be discovered, hidden cities waiting to be found, and the promise that adventure was just around the corner. It is a trip worth taking.
photo credit: Amazon Studios and Bleecker Street