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The Lost City of Z transforms the true story of a jungle explorer into a universal quest

Elegant and elegiac, the movie captures our desire for something bigger than ourselves.

Charlie Hunnam in The Lost City of Z
Charlie Hunnam in The Lost City of Z
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Early on in The Lost City of Z, our hero, Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), is described with thinly veiled disdain by one upper-crusty older fellow to another as having been “rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors.” Fawcett’s well-born father pissed away the family fortune; so, as a young man and the only undecorated officer in his military regiment, Percy aims to regain his family’s honor.

That aim ultimately drives him straight into the jungle. He’s assigned to join a major expedition sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society — a dangerous journey to map Bolivia and establish its borders. The mission will take him away from his beloved wife and young son for several years. Maybe forever.

But Fawcett has just toasted with a fellow soldier “to death, the best sauce for life,” and while the assignment is certainly a good opportunity to redeem his family’s reputation, the glint in his eye betrays the truth: Fawcett craves an adventure, for reasons even he can’t articulate. And in telling his story, The Lost City of Z becomes a cinematic song for those who love deeply and live thoroughly but are never quite satisfied.

The Lost City of Z is the true story of an explorer who can’t quite pinpoint what he’s seeking

Fawcett’s nameless, shapeless desire slowly gathers mass over the course of The Lost City of Z, acquiring a barely discernible outline — though what Fawcett is truly after is still a mystery by the end. Based on David Grann’s 2010 book about Fawcett (which itself grew out of his 2005 New Yorker article on the explorer), it feels like a movie from an earlier era. That’s not surprising, given that it’s written and directed by James Gray (The Immigrant), who normally trains his classical sensibility on small, intimate stories. This is a different sort of movie: a stately, elegant epic paced like an elegy.

Charlie Hunnam in The Lost City of Z
Braving the jungle.

The Lost City of Z follows a hero who feels earthbound by his ancestors but longs for something greater, some experience that defies definition, to discover something beyond what his own civilization has managed to produce. He craves distinction. But even more, he craves the experience of transcendence: to move beyond his world and see it as a bigger place, without the strictures placed on him by the culture and religion he was raised in. The world, he suspects, is much bigger than anything we can see. And brushes with death only make life more piercingly sweet.

Fawcett’s first trip to “Amazonia,” as it’s called, yields some revelations. The jungle is verdant, and life-threatening. A traveler might stumble on a snake or on an opera performance staged by the rubber company that’s harvesting in the region. And the “savages,” who are considered subhuman by the explorers back at the Royal Geographical Society, may actually be far more advanced than the British, with whole civilizations created and lost before white people ever managed to set foot in the jungle. Those civilizations include a city that’s been nicknamed Z by those who whisper about its riches, both those native to the jungle and adventurers who hear the story.

Robert Pattinson in The Lost City of Z
Robert Pattinson in The Lost City of Z.

Fawcett doesn’t quite manage to find the city — only evidence that it exists. But he returns to England, along with his hardy and sober assistant Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), full of memories of the place and the firm conviction that he must go back to Amazonia. He convinces the society that his return must happen for the good of science and humanity. At one of its meetings, he thunders from the podium that it’s the self-styled “civilized” men who have it all wrong: The men in the jungle are not “savages” but intelligent and, in his view, very likely equal to the white man.

For this absurdity, he takes a verbal drubbing from the heckling audience, but also gains their approval to embark on another trip, with Costin in tow. Also along for the adventure is James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), whose claim to fame is that he previously traveled with the great Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. But the jungle is not the Antarctic, and Murray is barely up to the task.

The Lost City of Z feels like a bittersweet lament

The story spins on from there, with Fawcett pulling away from the exploration at intervals to spend time with his family and to serve in the war, all the while harboring an almost erotic desire to be back in that sweaty, mosquito-filled jungle. He wants to hunt for Z, but as Costin eventually explains to him, Fawcett is looking for something more, something to complete him.

The great accomplishment of The Lost City of Z is how its narrative pace slows, almost imperceptibly, as it glides smoothly from history-rooted concreteness — Fawcett, his associates, and the society are all real — and toward a more abstracted way of telling the story. By the end, it’s as if we’ve passed into myth without noticing or really understanding how it happened. Under Gray’s direction, the actors (particularly Hunnam) deliver their lines with deliberation and enunciation, almost as if they’re being pulled off the pages of a book in real time.

Close call.
Amazon Studios

And as Fawcett’s life continues and the years pass, the weight of his experiences in the jungle seems to weigh on him, and on us. The memories and images are always settled on his shoulders, and ours.

That careful pacing makes for a movie that feels more like a bittersweet lament, a wish that finite man could know the world more fully in the time he’s allotted. Percy Fawcett is all of us, in the end — knowing we can only find ourselves in losing ourselves to a person or an idea much bigger than us.

The Lost City of Z releases in theaters on April 14.

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