The Lost City of Z
Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Tom Holland, Sienna Miller, Angus Mcfadyen
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An engaging, provocative story of one man’s obsession, set at a time when all the corners of the maps had yet to be filled in.
In 1905, while mapping the border between Bolivia and Brazil at the behest of the Royal Geographical Society, young British artillery officer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) discovers what he believes to be evidence of a sophisticated but now vanished civilisation deep in the Amazon rain forest. Thus begins a 20 year obsession, which sees Fawcett mount several expeditions into the uncharted wilderness, determined to find the seat of his theoretical lost nation, which he dubs The Lost City of Z.
It’s a true story, for the most part, and has all the ingredients for a rip-roaring, pulpy adventure – which it is. However, in the hands of director and screenwriter James Gray (Little Odessa, The Immigrant), The Lost City of Z is also an examination of colonialism, obsession, race, and class, his modern sensibilities bringing welcome complexity and shading to the proceedings.
It’s all anchored by a career-best turn from Hunnam, whose Fawcett is a complicated, flawed protagonist. At first he’s acting to improve his social standing – although an army officer, he’s never seen combat by the time the film starts, and his father’s bad reputation has stained the family name. Gradually, his motives shift, becoming a combination of altruism – he wants to prove that indigenous South Americans were capable of creating a sophisticated society as much as any “civilised” people – and arrogance – he also wants to prove himself against the scientific orthodoxy of the time.
Along the way he manages to alienate his son, Jack (Tom Holland, recently immortalised as Spider-Man), but (mostly) maintains the support of his wife, Nina (Sienna Miller) and trusty, hard-drinking right hand man, Costin (a great Robert Pattinson), who comes in handy when dealing with hostile tribes, near-drownings, piranhas, and, in one stand-out sequence, all three at once. The stuffy, obstinate establishment is represented by biologist James Murray (Angus Mcfadyen), who may have acquitted himself well on Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition, but finds his mettle melting in the steaming jungle.
For all the incident packed into it – we get three jungle expeditions, an interlude in the trenches of World War One, and even kick off the proceedings with a rather cracking stag hunt in the Irish countryside – Z isn’t afraid to take its time telling its sprawling, decades-spanning story. That’s for the best, though; for all that Fawcett inspired fictional characters from Professor Challenger to Indiana Jones, there’s a weight and a tragedy to his story that demands a certain deliberate pacing and, at 141 minutes, the film manages to communicate that without overstaing its welcome.
Still, some viewers may find themselves put off by the stately running time and necessarily ambiguous ending, but that’s their loss. This is an engaging, provocative story of one man’s obsession, set at a time when all the corners of the maps had yet to be filled in. Politically aware pulp – who knew it was even possible?