Humanity has long endured a difficult relationship with nature. It’s a coexistence that has oft been tackled by literature and film alike: that desire for conquest and struggle for omnipotent domination, so perfectly epitomised by Caspar David Friedrich’s romanticist painting: The Wander Above a Sea of Fog, that has driven many an explorer to madness, their sanity a sacrifice to their ambition. From Livingstone to Scott, all have found the natural world to be a fearsome opponent.
Less well known than those Boys’ Own heroes is Lt. Col. Percival Harrison Fawcett, the subject of David Grann’s article, and later published biography, The Lost City of Z, now brought to the big screen by director James Grey. Between 1906 and 1925, Fawcett, portrayed in 2017 by Charlie Hunnam, undertook seven expeditions to South America, spending the most of those years in search of an ancient civilisation, proposed to have been long since lost within the jungles of Bolivia, akin to Hiram Bingham’s 1911 rediscovery of Machu Picchu in Peru.
It was Britain’s Royal Geographic Society who first sent Fawcett to the Amazon, his initial mission objective being to map the border of Brazil and Bolivia and, in doing so, prevent potential outbreaks of war between the countries. The film’s plot, however, opens a year earlier in a Cork-based Army Barracks of pre-partition Ireland, where British soldiers participate in dog and gun, horseback hunting games. Here, having cut from an initial, suitably enticing, establishing image of a tribe lit by flames in the jungle darkness, obvious connotations can be drawn between Percy as the determined hunter of an innocent stag and the man who would devote the rest of his life to a hunt no less affixing.
Contrary to the film’s title, The Lost City of Z is never really about the discovery of a literally locatable city; instead, Grey’s intent is the crafting of a study into the fascinating complex of his protagonist. As a character, Fawcett indeed presents a deeply layered opportunity for critical interpretation. He never knew his father, a renowned drunk and gambler, but is tainted by the memory of his ill-repute. Furthermore, in the film’s early scenes, he is a man very much aware of the lack of formal decoration upon his Major’s uniform, a burden expressed in his lamentation that he is ‘impatient of lost years’. By all accounts Fawcett ought to be living a contented life; his wife (Sienna Miller) is every bit his equal – theirs is a progressive relationship within the context of contemporaneous society – and yet no less devoted. Even with the expected arrival of their first child, for Fawcett, it isn’t enough. Thus, when offered the chance of ‘a grand adventure’ by Sir George Goldie (Ian McDiarmid) Fawcett is persuaded to seize the opportunity as his road to recognition; it is his ‘reputation as a man’ that is at stake.
Recruiting Corporal Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson, looking every bit the rogue explorer under a tremendously unkempt beard) as his guide, Fawcett hence sails west unaware of the significance the journey will bear on his destiny. The jungle is a deadly terrain and the perfect backdrop for the intensity of the film; whereas Iñárritu’s The Revenant presented its landscape as a cold and bleak expanse, Grey’s jungle is dense, humid and claustrophobic. A decision to capture the film on 35mm print works particularly well here, the environment never succumbing to the crisp definition of Hollywood, recalling instead the tonal aesthetics of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. When first told of the titular Lost City (it is Fawcett himself who later names it ‘Z’) by a native, Fawcett even supposes this to be a theory driven by the madness induced by too long in such a hostile habituation. This being the same madness presumed upon Marlon Brando’s Walter Kurtz, it is a suggestion that makes for an apt trait of character when, following the discovery of some shards of pottery and later carvings, Fawcett too falls under the spell of the jungle and the legend of Z.
For Fawcett, finding this civilisation – a place ‘where no white man has ever been before’ – translates into a need to prove himself and find meaning: the satisfaction that his is not a life wasted. The film briefly touches on his career in the First World War where his is the brigade that suffers the most but symbolically never gives up the drive. Having himself had no father figure, Fawcett’s relationship with his own eldest son (a fresh-faced and false-moustachioed Tom Holland) is a strained and awkward one, whilst his inability to understand the importance of the paternal role in shaping a young man’s life, having not himself experienced it, speaks volumes through constant absences. At root, the Fawcett of Grey’s depiction is still very much the child embodied on screen by his son – the boy yearning for the validation of earning an acknowledgement of pride.
Leading The Lost City of Z, Hunnam showcases a terrific performance, his voice and stature both silken and painfully restrained. Despite Fawcett’s being a lonely journey, at his side Pattinson provides quiet excellence and neat comedy – ‘Mr Fawcett, the jungle is Hell, but one kind of likes it’ – via Grey’s intelligent and taught script. Playing a character victim to contemporary enforced subservience, Miller suffers no such injustice, shining as Nina Fawcett, the wife of promise left behind. Nina is no passive observer to her husband’s glory, herself an academic, but is barred from the expedition as a woman and thus barer of apparently too weak a body. It is a pointed juxtaposition that sees Angus Macfadyen’s unfit and physically ill-equipped James Murray (a biologist previously having served under Ernest Shackleton) accompany and almost thwart, through inefficiency, the very same expedition from which Nina is rejected.
Deciding to condense Fawcett’s seven explorations into three, whilst also fitting the first World War into the 140 minute runtime, Grey’s struggle with such extensive source material is sometimes transparent in the film’s occasional feeling of enslavement to history. Each segment of the film is somewhat episodic in its unfolding, whilst time and location captions range from vague ‘uncharted’ territories in 1906 to intricately specific dates like September 26th 1916. Similarly, more time would have been justified in developing the more personal familial dynamics of Fawcett, particularly concerning his son – who accompanies him on his final journey. That said, Grey’s direction is throughout solidly delivered, and admirably done so on challenging location in Columbia.
Fawcett’s legacy, vanishing in 1925, is such that his story and personality is said to have inspired characters in fiction from the long-lost British explorer Ridgewell of Hergé’s Tintin series through to Up’s deranged antagonist Charles F. Muntz, supposedly even influencing Indiana Jones. The Lost City of Z is, however, a more ponderous piece than those adventures; less a film of action than interaction. In retelling Fawcett’s search for Z, Grey finds success in mining the question of why, making for a beautifully cinematic and throughly engaging exploration in its own right.