The Lost City of Z is based on a 2009 nonfiction book by David Grann, and if it weren’t established that the majority of what takes place during James Gray’s film adaptation actually happened on record, it’d seem impossible. But it’s all true. In 1905, Percy Fawcett did indeed set out as the leader of a British expedition to uncharted eastern Bolivia, returning with controversial proof that “savages” of the region may have been the direct descendants of an advanced civilization, capable of building an agrarian society in the harshest imaginable conditions. Fawcett became obsessed with proving that there was once a city in the Amazonian wilderness, and in 1925, he and his son Jack disappeared into the jungle. They were never seen again.
What happened during those travels of discovery, and what might have become of Percy and Jack, is only a part of Gray’s concern over the film’s sprawling 20-year story. Charlie Hunnam, in his best performance to date, realizes Percy as a generally decent man with the sort of fatal flaw shared by so many men of his time: the need to conquer the allegedly unconquerable. Early on, it’s the hierarchy of early-1900s Britain, as Percy suffers the indignity of attempting to climb the social ladder for yet another night alongside his loyal wife Nina (Sienna Miller). Despite his distinguished military service, Percy remains without medals or commendations, the result of his departed father’s shame. For all of his efforts, it seems as though Percy has reached his glass ceiling, one forcibly upheld by those around him.
Then, a risky (if lucrative) opportunity arises. With political tensions rising in Bolivia over its booming rubber mining business, the British government develops an interest in defining territorial lines. Percy is offered the thankless task of surveying the unmapped lands surrounding the Amazon River, with the promise that his lot in life could improve if he returns successful. Percy accepts the job, hiring Mr. Costin (Robert Pattinson, under a formidable beard) to assist him in the journey, and then bids his family farewell. But as the men quickly discover, the region is unforgiving even to those who inhabit it, let alone outsiders. The diseases are plentiful and life threatening. The predators are unforgiving. And the native tribes, who’ve already seen their share of white men arriving to infringe on sacred ground, are hardly welcoming. Gray illustrates this in a harrowing early sequence that sees the search party’s raft assaulted by a deluge of blow-darts and arrows from the trees, sending them into the piranha-infested waters. But once Percy learns that the city of Zed (as he calls it) may have existed, there’s no obstacle too dangerous to keep him away.
Gray’s screenplay sends Percy and Costin and their haggard crew on more than one expedition, and each comes with its own perils. In the first, they quickly learn about the hazards of their own ignorance, in multiple senses; not only is the territory precariously unknown to them, but as Percy discovers, the violence they inevitably bring as the first wave of potential future colonization is its own assault. In the second, Percy is forced to suffer the whining of an English debutante (Angus Macfadyen) who likes the idea of helping Percy discover a lost civilization until he learns about the realities of the jungle firsthand. In the third, Percy risks his life and the life of his son Jack (Tom Holland as the oldest of three actors in the role) to complete the work he started so many years before. And all the while, Percy is forced to wonder exactly what he’s accomplishing with his presence, and whether he’ll return home to Nina and to a family he knows less and less. Gray frames the film’s story as less of a historical progression than as a dirge through the inevitable: through sickness, through war, through unforeseen brutality.
Lost City perceives these things as part of the natural order of humanity, but it’s a measure of Gray’s accomplished script that these instances never register as bleak nihilism for the sake of itself. There is a nuance to Gray’s handling of the story that distinguishes Lost City, and much of it lies in the way that Gray reframes Fawcett’s travels as an inquiry into human compulsion. Hunnam’s performance lends Percy an empathy that proves essential when the film starts to interrogate the ethics of his travels, and when Percy starts to do the same, Gray draws firm distinctions between his well-meaning (if suspect) work and the poor intentions of his employers. Where Percy sees the possibility of a forgotten city as miraculous, the high society that hired him to protect its business interests scorns the idea that anything other than white manifest destiny could build such a thing: “Are you insisting that these savages are our equals?” The Lost City of Z is as much about the struggle of progress as the real-life story it’s telling, and Gray sharply observes the ways in which mankind continuously tears itself apart, usually in the name of progress.
As a filmmaker, Gray has often demonstrated an interest in subverting familiar modes, and Lost City features some of his boldest work to date in this regard. His direction here suggests David Lean by way of Werner Herzog, with the former’s lushly shot panoramas and clear, traditional pacing met by the latter’s deliberate, understated sense of existential dread. Though Aguirre, the Wrath of God comes to mind, particularly in the first act, Gray is slightly less pessimistic about the savagery of man; Percy and his crew’s struggles to retain their humanity in the face of the unforgiving jungle are at the emotional center of the film, and Gray never seems to entirely lose faith that they can still find their way, even if they may not be the same once they do.
It’s then all the more intriguing when Gray uses the period-piece details to comment on modern dialogues, as he did with the revisionist feminism of The Immigrant. The film’s address of the thorny issues around Percy being a colonizer of a different sort is thoughtful, and almost feels bold in its candid approach to historical truth. While he starts out in an arrogant attempt to improve his standing, Percy eventually comes to see the tribes less as savages than as people from another world, with societies and customs and demands of basic respect all their own. It’s a far cry from the problematic ethics of eminent domain that have often characterized so many adventure stories (and real-life adventures) through history, and particularly in one scene that sees Percy defending his findings against an angrily skeptical British aristocracy, Gray finds that the mere idea of a world beyond our comprehension can often be just as volatile as proof.
This may be a story of an old world, but Gray ably makes the case that it’s hardly as antiquated as many would like to think. Lost City is the rare historical film which realizes that issues of misogyny and racism are age-old, and its engagement with them is met by Gray’s occasional flourishes of modernity throughout. For instance, Miller does great work as Nina, who in a lesser film would fall into the stock type of the supportive-yet-embattled wife. Here, the character challenges the notion that her life should simply serve as collateral damage to Percy’s noble pursuit, even demanding at one point that she be allowed onto the next expedition when it comes. Rejecting Percy’s bellowing declarations about the importance of her child-rearing, Nina declares that discovery shouldn’t just be allowed to the chosen classes, affirming that even the noblest adventurers probably stood on somebody else’s neck along the way.
Where Gray’s screenplay is supremely assured in its matching of contemporary discourse and historical fidelity, his filmmaking marries patient compositions with moments of hallucinatory distress. In just one of a few standout scenes, Percy sits with a fortune teller while away at war, who validates his growing fear that “your soul will never be quiet” as long as the city of Zed remains just outside of his grasp. Gray follows the psychic’s hypnotic exercise by slyly inserting the two of them back into the Amazon, immersing him in what may have become his true home even as he’s a world away. Another stunning composition sees Hunnam, returning from his first journey, stepping back into an overwhelming mass of humanity, a foreigner even as he returns to his native soil. Even as Gray offers a film as cleanly and traditionally assembled as any of recent vintage, the echoes of oncoming change hang heavy over the script and film alike.
The Lost City of Z exists between worlds in its production and narrative alike, an endlessly compelling fusion of the classic and the modern. In this way, it matches the increasing dualities within Percy, who knows less and less of the world in which he spent his whole life as he spends more and more time immersed in another. There is a family he left behind, and always will be, but Gray wrestles with exactly what a man is supposed to do when he knows that he will never be able to understand peace without risk. Set during the beginnings of true globalization, Lost City confronts the terror of a world that remains mysterious even after every map has been drawn and every foot of land trod upon. To not know, the film frightfully suggests, is to die without true enlightenment, but Gray also understands the price of knowing. In the film’s most hallucinatory image, which Gray saves for the very last, he poses that the only solution afforded to our most unanswerable questions is to enter the fog of confusion, willingly, and with the knowledge that one might not return. It’s just the natural order.