In the last scene of The Lost City of Z, the wife of explorer Percy Fawcett (Sienna Miller) at last transports herself out of London: reflected in a large mirror at the foot of a staircase she has descended is the jungle into which her husband and son have vanished. This is the only bit of self-conscious poetry in a movie that treats narrative as a exercise in Euclidean logic. After all, the filmmaker is James Gray, who since opening his career with the crime films Little Odessa and The Yards has become an expert in expanding his way out of his constrictions to become one of the most resourceful and probing of modern American writer-directors. An unspoken rebuke to a Joseph Conrad novel, The Lost City of Z wonders how men reared in the customs of the greatest colonial empire since Rome can with their education declaw their prejudices about so-called primitive cultures.
An alarmingly handsome Charlie Hunnam stars as Fawcett, a colonel in the British Army of 1906 for whom deer hunting (a stodgy affair, captured in an opening sequence by Darius Khondji, in which swollen men in tight uniforms sit atop their horrified steeds) and a sedentary life means an early grave. Ambition gnaws at him, and in Victorian England an undistinguished past that includes a drunken father means no status. Then the Royal Geographic Society summons him: he must lead an expedition into the hinterlands between Bolivia and Brazil for the purpose of mapping the British’s rubber claims. “I think you will find me capable of any sacrifice,” Fawcett says, thrusting his chin at the camera. Accompanying him is aide-de-camp Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and Willis, a native guide who as they journey up the river enthralls the group with accounts of a lost city; when your crew starts belching black goo, the mosquitoes are as large as tapirs, and indigenous tribes shoot arrows from shorelines, any scraps of pottery and faces carved into trunks will look promising.
Gray has already made one film in which the laws of the jungle loosen the bonds of family: 2007’s much underrated We Own the Night, in which loved ones are powerless to stop the decline of Joaquin Phoenix. That film also boasted an unusual intensity, vise-like in its force and concentration; it was serious about its subject, too serious too wink at, much less acknowledge, its audience, yet, despite this, remarkably, it has no lapses into camp. Marshaling everything he’s learned about filmmaking, The Lost City of Z has the coolness of a fait accompli; unlike Herzog or Coppola, Gray and Fawcett’s obsessions do not fuse, which might explain a few of the confused reviews I’ve read. As the years pass and Fawcett commutes, like a bank manager visiting a remote branch, between London and the jungle, he is no closer to finding Z than at the start of his quest; he’s obsessed but not mad.
I’ve also read grumbling about the casting of Hunnam and the seriousness with which Gray takes Fawcett’s pieties about exploring the unknown and faith and all the rest. Without Hunnam’s sobriety and rather frightening good looks, The Lost City of Z‘s sureness would look less persuasive. Playing a feminist with a simpatico husband who gets knocked down a peg after suggesting she’s up to the depredations of the jungle, Miller gives her best performance. Gray’s ear for the rhythms of speech give her and Hunnam’s scenes their charge (Gray is one of the few American writer-directors who can write). Robert Pattinson, disappearing into his beard, does self-effacing work and an assured bit of Jonathan Pryce mimicry. One of the film’s most potent scenes takes place after Fawcett’s maiden voyage when the Society demands he address that august, pompous body. Tempers rise on learning about his conviction that the indigenous people had a civilization as advanced as the white man’s. The polysyllabic fervor and the teasing way in which the members and Hunnam goad and patronize and eventually come together is winning, like a session of Parliament seen by an observer, or the crowd scenes in Orson Welles pictures.
Although Fawcett’s children are dim, love-starved creatures, The Lost City of Z is not one of those movies distracted by Oscar-programmed confrontations between the iron-ribbed patriarch and his creations. Following the outlines of David Grann’s 2005 account, an aged Fawcett and his eldest son Jack (Tom Holland), at the behest a consortium of newspaper editors, set out a final time into the jungle in 1925, a final time because they are never heard from again. There’s no sense of loss. Inherent in tragedy is inevitability.