One of the quiet triumphs of James Gray’s The Lost City of Z is how it posits artillery officer, archaeologist, and explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam)—who disappeared along with his son, Jack (Tom Holland), in 1925 while searching for a fabled civilization in the Amazon rainforest—as a kindred spirit of The Immigrant’s Ewa Cybulski. If the exact nature of Fawcett’s obsession with Z remains frustratingly ineffable, that’s by design, as Gray understands that the explorer sailed toward a new world, not unlike many immigrants who arrived in America around the same time, in chase of a dream that would remain just that. Fawcett “seemed to approach each journey as if it were a Buddhist rite of purification,” wrote David Grann in the nonfiction bestseller on which this film is based, and indeed, as Gray brings Fawcett’s story to a culmination, the mystery of the man’s demise is exalted as a moment of transcendence: of a mind being freed from the shackles of obsession.
The Lost City of Z is a film of phantasmagoric form, as currents of emotional discord are ever lapping against the corners of its stolid and painterly surface. Early on, two members of the Royal Geographical Society, Sir George Goldie (Ian McDiarmid) and Sir John Scott Keltie (Clive Francis), enlist Fawcett to make his first journey to South America as a neutral third party to mark the border between Bolivia and Brazil. Tellingly, Fawcett must work to make his presence known to these agents of empire, even though they need him more than he needs them. And Fawcett’s spirit of adventure seems ignited by a calling that’s less higher than spectral, as one of the men, pointedly out of focus behind him, blurts out that this is the explorer’s chance to redeem the legacy that his father drunkenly squandered. It’s the first of many gestures that point to Gray’s understanding of Fawcett as a wanderer in the bush of ghosts.
As it charts Fawcett’s first two adventures in the Amazon, The Lost City of Z proceeds as a measured catalogue of the explorer’s good instincts and hardy constitution. Because Fawcett was never witness to them, all the horrors committed against natives of the Amazon that allowed for the proliferation of the rubber industry within the jungle, and the building of a grand opera house where he enlists the help of a rubber tycoon, go reasonably unmentioned. Yet there’s a sense that insight into Fawcett’s view of how colonialist force exerted itself in the region might have allowed the explorer’s open-minded outlook to feel less like it’s been ascribed to him in hindsight. On his second trip to the Amazon, Fawcett barely bats an eye upon witnessing a tribe’s endocannibalistic practices. And because Fawcett’s education as a gentleman and explorer remains unelaborated throughout the film, there’s little sense of how he freed himself of the dark impulses that grip men like his companion, biologist and Shackleton acolyte James Murray (Angus Macfadyen).
Gray, then, asks us to take his protagonist’s essential goodness at face value. That is, until midway through The Lost City of Z, when, inside a stuffy Royal Geographical Society boardroom, Fawcett justifies his bona fides with a conviction and fervor that will serve him well during the First World War. “I refuse this madness,” Murray yelps at the society’s members, pretending his cowardice didn’t nearly cost the lives of Fawcett and his two most trusted companions, Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley). Suddenly, Fawcett’s integrity is understood to be a product of a sense of brotherhood freed from the constraints of privilege and tradition. But Gray takes pains not to sentimentalize Fawcett, even when an enemy bullet fells Arthur on the battlefield with the same savage suddenness with which a tribesman’s arrow earlier took out one of Fawcett’s men along the Amazon River. In Fawcett’s face, as his friend falls to the ground, is the key to the film’s riches as a plumbing of a man’s existential confusion.
When Fawcett, after the heroism he displays on the battlefield, speaks of his desire to discover the film’s eponymous city and how it has nothing to do with place and rank, king and country, it’s as if he’s admitting to being cut from the same phantom cloth as Z itself. And the man certainly feels ethereal as he wafts in and out of the life he barely inhabits with his adoring wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), and their many children. The Lost City of Z’s great masterstroke is Gray and Hunnam’s profound comprehension of Fawcett’s drive to find Z as a form of self-erasure; both director and actor link every weathered look that Fawcett throws to the heart of the explorer’s spiritual yearning. By film’s end, which sees Fawcett and Jack caught in a purgatory-like expanse of jungle barely lit by tribal fires, one feels Gray’s pressure to rewrite The Immigrant’s prismatic final shot. And he does, by evoking the manner in which annihilation and exaltation walked hand in hand throughout Fawcett’s life as a haunting but euphoric lifeblood that can never ebb away.