NEW YORK TIMES
Published on April 13, 2017 by Manhola Dargis
In “The Lost City of Z,” a lush, melancholic story of discovery and mystery, a mesmerizing Charlie Hunnam plays a British adventurer in the Amazon who is consumed by “all the glories of exploration,” as Joseph Conrad once wrote of a different journey. Enveloped by the forest, the explorer and his crew face snakes, piranhas, insects and that most terrifying of threats: other people, who at times bombard the strangers with arrows. Undaunted, he perseveres, venturing more deeply into a world that first becomes a passion and then something of a private hallucination. It’s 1906, and while wonders like moving pictures are rapidly shrinking the world, the dream of unknown lands endures.
That dream isn’t only about the Amazon in “The Lost City of Z” but also about the movies and their ability to transport us to astonishing new worlds. For us, the Age of Discovery is long gone and, for the most part, so are old-fashioned historical epics, other than the occasional Chinese extravaganza or one of those international waxworks with clashing accents. Hollywood used to churn these out regularly, but they’ve faded, casualties of shifting industry logic, audience taste, cultural norms and other pressures. The romance of adventure has largely shifted from history to fantasy fiction, an easier, less contested playground for conquering white heroes.
In “The Lost City of Z,” the writer-director James Gray has set out to make a film in the colonial era that suggests the likes of David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” but through a sensitive, contemporary lens. It’s one that starts from the premise that while white men have long been the keepers of the historical record, they didn’t make the past single-handedly. The story that Mr. Gray has chosen seems an unlikely candidate for such revisionism because it turns on Lieut. Col. Percy Harrison Fawcett, who came to believe in the existence of a lost Amazonian civilization. He called it the lost city of Z; others called it El Dorado, a European illusion that proved catastrophic for the New World.
The movie opens shortly before Fawcett is approached by the Royal Geographical Society to map uncharted territory in Bolivia. A career soldier and son of a disgraced aristocrat, Fawcett is anxious to change his fortunes and increase his social standing. Leaving behind, rather too easily, his loving wife, Nina (Sienna Miller, wonderful), and their young son (later played by Tom Holland), he sets off and is soon struggling through the Amazon with a small crew that includes an aide-de-camp, Henry Costin (an excellent Robert Pattinson, shaggy and almost unrecognizable). Deep in a jungle, where each wonder is matched by terror, Fawcett is ravaged — and then transformed — by his discoveries of both a new world and another self.
Mr. Gray opens this world gloriously. As a director, he has an old-fashioned belief in cinematic beauty, in the charm and necessity of the perfectly lighted and framed face, the hauntingly darkened room, the grittily coarsened street. He’s a sensualist, and in “The Lost City of Z” he turns the Amazon into a ravishment for the senses. (The cinematographer, Darius Khondji, who goes dark brilliantly, shot Mr. Gray’s last film, “The Immigrant.”) As Fawcett presses on, walking and sailing through dense shadow, streaming light and canopies of variegated green, the natural world comes fantastically alive with strange animal cries, stirring trees, roiling fog and frighteningly violent eddies.
In time, native peoples emerge from those trees, by turns watchful, threatening and welcoming. Much as he does throughout his Amazonian travels, Fawcett is enlivened by his encounters with the Indians. He’s a natural, somewhat surprisingly peaceful ambassador given his background and historical moment (even if his restraint also nicely suits Mr. Hunnam’s slow-burning charisma). When his expedition comes under siege at one point, he orders his men not to fire and instead waves a kerchief while calling out “Amigo!” It’s a stratagem, but Fawcett’s curiosity is boundless and he sees accomplishment and complexity in this world, which sharply goes against bigoted orthodoxies back home.
Mr. Gray, working from David Grann’s 2009 book, “The Lost City of Z,” glosses over Fawcett’s more noxious beliefs. Mr. Grann, for one, writes that Fawcett “escaped virtually every kind of pathology in the jungle, but he could not rid himself of the pernicious disease of race.” It’s no surprise that the real Fawcett was as fascinatingly contradictory as you might expect of a Victorian-born British explorer. Mr. Gray doesn’t soften all of these uncomfortable edges — there is arrogance and tinges of cruelty in this portrait — but he’s far more interested in what seems to have distinguished Fawcett, namely his passionate belief that Amazonian Indians were not the primitives the West insisted they were.
That passion sends Fawcett back to the Amazon several more times over the years, eventually becoming a kind of steadily devouring fever. He’s hailed as a hero after he returns from his first trip, but by the time he’s home he has a new child, whose birth he missed. This sets the template for his life, as Fawcett increasingly gives himself over to the Amazon and neglects his family, a familiar divide that Mr. Gray turns into the story’s axis point. In most movies of this type, the great man kisses the little woman goodbye and sets off. Here, partly because Fawcett repeatedly returns home, Nina emerges as a substantial narrative force and not only a reminder of what he’s willing to sacrifice.
Fawcett finds ecstasy in and out of the Amazon, as does Mr. Gray, who fills the screen with intimate reveries and overwhelming spectacle, including a harrowing interlude during World War I. Until now, Mr. Gray has tended to work on a somewhat modest scale, often with art films that play with genre. Here, he effortlessly expands his reach as he moves across time and continents and in the process turns the past into a singular life. There’s much to love in this film, but what lingers are those lapidary details that often go missing in stories about great men, as if they had built the world alone and no child had ever raced down a road waving goodbye as a father disappeared into history.