Anyone harbouring a lingering shred of nostalgia for the British Empire should take a good look at The Lost City Of Z. Some may want to get back to those days of colonies and economic expansion, but it’s wise to remember they were also a period of arrogance, oppression and outright ignorance.
This much is revealed in the film’s pivotal scene where soldier and explorer Major Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) lays out evidence for a previously undiscovered Amazonian civilisation before an incredulous Royal Geological Society. Fawcett’s assembled peers raucously laugh off the claims, since they would skewer their long-held belief that the jungles of South America are the homes of inferior ‘savages’, to use their own term. Empires, in short, are built on a sense of superiority and entitlement.
From this fateful moment on, Fawcett makes it his life’s goal to prove the existence of his lost city of Z; what begins as just another job – he’s initially despatched to the region to create maps – becomes an all-consuming passion.
Based on the non-fiction book by David Grann, The Lost City Of Z is an elegant piece of filmmaking from writer-director James Gray. It’s a grand period film in the mould of David Lean or Merchant Ivory, albeit with a sense of the strange and uncanny which recalls Werner Herzog and Francis Ford Coppola. Fawcett’s obsessive commitment to exploring the Amazon, and the territory’s palpable sense of danger feel like an amalgam of Aguirre: Wrath Of God and Apocalypse Now. A delightfully dreamlike moment where Fawcett discovers an opera company deep in the jungle, presided over by a filthy-rich and unseemly rubber baron (played by Franco Nero, who your humble writer initially failed to recognise) feel like an open nod to Fitzcarraldo, or maybe the phantasmagorical Playboy ‘burlesque show in the middle of hell’ sequence in Apocalypse Now.
Fawcett’s obsessive nature, and the impact it has on his longsuffering wife Nina (Sienna Miller) has perhaps unintended parallels with Peter Weir’s underrated 80s drama Mosquito Coast, in which Harrison Ford’s inventor drags his family halfway across Central America on a quixotic mission of his own. In this regard, we can’t help but feel more than a little sorry for Nina, who’s left in stuffy old England raising the kids while Fawcett dodges arrows, or the various other adventurers, guides and other odd characters who assist Fawcett down river and wind up with all kinds of ugly injuries and maladies.
The most striking regular among Fawcett’s group is Costin, played by a brilliantly understated Robert Pattinson. With his thick beard, round glasses and ever-present hip flask, he’s an immediately likeable supporting character, and Pattinson puts in a generously restrained performance – indeed, it’s something of a surprise that Pattinson didn’t lobby for the leading role.
In the middle of it all, Fawcett comes across as a bit of an enigma. Hunnam highlights the explorer’s bravery and resolve, yet he remains something of a remote, unknowable figure. Instead, Fawcett becomes a constant as the story takes in 20 years of history – a period which takes in the Empire at its peak, the devastation of the First World War, and the beginning of the old order’s decline in the middle of the 1920s. Through it all, Fawcett’s personal philosophy and calm demeanour remain broadly unchanged, whether he’s leading the charge on the Somme or returning later in his life for yet another journey up the Amazon, this time with his son Jack (played as a grown-up by Tom Holland) as his loyal companion.
The most captivating spark of human spirit comes not from Fawcett, but his wife. Sienna Miller puts in a stunning performance as Nina – fiercely intelligent and quick witted, she’s more than a match for her celebrated husband. Indeed, there’s the strong implication that Nina could easily go off on jungle adventures of her own had she grown up towards the end of the 20th century instead of at its beginning. Even when she gets the odd less-than-elegant line (“I am an independent woman!”), Miller is superbly watchable. Indeed, in the final third, there’s the sense that none of this is an accident; as the film draws to a close, The Lost City Of Z proves to be just as much Nina’s story as her husband’s.
Sometimes meanderingly, but often bewitchingly, The Lost City Of Z relates the story of two lost civilisations: the one quietly reclaimed by the South American jungle, and the stuffy, oppressive old British empire. In Gray’s hands, the Amazon becomes a refuge from the rigid class structures and pomposity of Edwardian Britain; there’s danger among the foliage, but freedom and beauty, too.
The Lost City Of Z is out in UK cinemas on the 24th March.