Director James Gray’s NYFF closer The Lost City of Z is a visually stunning film. Shot in 35mm on location in Columbia, Ireland, and the United Kingdom, it lovingly renders the English landscape and Amazonian jungle alike. You can feel the humid heat of the Amazon, the cool breeze of the countryside, the rush of wind over the sea, the stillness of the jungle river. Periods of silence punctuate scenes of a raft journey upriver, the battlefields of World War I, struggles through uncharted territory, as men blend into the oppressive flora or battle with a raging river. The cinematography of The Lost City of Z is sublime, moving, and terrifyingly beautiful.
It’s a shame then that the rest of the film doesn’t justify its own beauty. The Lost City of Z falls into the trap of being just as romantic as its rather deluded central character, failing to create a cohesive or interesting narrative that exceeds the heroic posturing of real men being real manly.
The Lost City of Z tells the story of Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a military man struggling to make his way up the social ladder, who gets assigned to go out surveying in the Amazon for the Royal Geographic Society. Along with fellow surveyor Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), Fawcett sets out for Brazil with a small group of men and a native guide to find the source of a major river and map it for the society.
Over the course of his journey, he discovers broken pottery fragments and carven images that he believes indicate a great lost civilization – the City of Z – buried deep in the jungle. The search for Z takes up the rest of Percy’s life, with some time off for World War I, and to father two more children with wife Nina (Sienna Miller), already the mother of Jack (Tom Holland).
Despite paying lip service to a post-colonial world—one in which it really doesn’t do to disrespect indigenous peoples, for instance—the film nevertheless focuses on the trials and tribulations of a man searching for evidence of civilization in the wilderness, to be the first white man to vindicate natives who themselves have no particular wish to be vindicated.
As the search for Z takes over more and more of Percy’s life, and almost kills more than one member of his group, his obsession seems like it could take on some critical significance. But the script shies away from that, instead formulating Percy’s story as one man’s quest for vindication, a heroic destiny from which he cannot escape. Being a strapping manly man, Percy must follow his heart, even if it means abandoning wife and children for years on end in order to do so.
The Lost City of Z plays out like a combination of King Solomon’s Mines and Heart of Darkness, with Hunnam as a hunky, less racist Allan Quatermain. The apparent lack of critical distance would be more palatable if the entire film didn’t wreak of romanticization and hero worship, a fascination with the dashing explorer out to chart uncharted territories. Any film about past exploration has to carry with it the burdens of colonial and post-colonial experience, but The Lost City of Z doesn’t particularly want to deal with any of that. It touches on the issues of colonialism, social hierarchy, gender roles, and even war without the slightest hint of irony, always coming down on the side of its dashing, nearly perfect hero. The Lost City of Z tells an unambiguously heroic tale, one in which the hero is always right and the adventure is worth it all.
The cast of The Lost City of Z makes a good effort, however, and there’s no doubt that Gray’s directing, such as it is, is more than serviceable and often very beautiful. Hunnam is excellent in the straightforward, dashing role that would have featured Errol Flynn or Stewart Granger back in Classic Hollywood. Robert Pattinson, meanwhile, continues on his quiet quest to prove that he’s an excellent character actor, disappearing behind a beard and into his role with no sign of wanting to steal the spotlight.
Equally enjoyable is Sienna Miller, who lends depth to her thankless role as Percy’s patient wife, an intelligent and capable woman casually raising an entire family while her husband vanishes for years on end. The strongest scene in the film, in fact, is the argument between Percy and Nina as the latter demands to be taken on his next expedition. That little comes of the argument itself is more of a failing of the film than of the characters.
The Lost City of Z is ultimately a disappointment—a movie that aspires to epic status without taking the time to question the very meaning of its own story. It’s an opportunity lost, dealing as it does with heroes too confident to be wrong, and adventures too exciting to be criticized. For all the gorgeous lushness of its imagery, The Lost City of Z is a shallow film, as superficial as the glitter of sunlight on jungle leaves.
Despite gorgeous cinematography and a strong cast, The Lost City of Z is a shallow and overly romantic film that falls into the trap of hero worship.