The mythical city exists only the periphery of The Lost City of Z. We are afforded no glimpses of it, beyond a handful of pottery shards and some ominous carved faces in the jungle (and those latter may or may not be fever-induced hallucinations). Percy Fawcett failed to find the city, so perhaps it is understandable that director James Gray withholds its temples and statues. But cinema is not as securely moored to reality as we sometimes like to believe. Gray has it within his power to take us where Fawcett never went, and that he doesn’t makes The Lost City of Z a deeply unsatisfying film.
It feels like a wasted opportunity. The film is beautifully shot, with director of photography Darius Khondji suffusing the jungles of South America with a mysterious golden glow. But compared to previous films set in similar places and similar times – the likes of Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God or last year’s Embrace of the Serpent – The Lost City of Z’s jungle sojourns look prosaic. Yes, Z is dealing with similar themes, with obsession and the European invasion of indigenous cultures, but it lacks the human darkness of Herzog’s film and the surreal spirituality of Ciro Guerra’s.
The saving grace is Charlie Hunnam, whose Percy Fawcett (19th century soldier and explorer) is far more compelling than the perilous rainforest or the search for a mythical city. Hunnam has always been a warm screen presence, which allows him to capture Fawcett’s geniality and easy charm, but Hunnam also displays a steely resolve and determination. It is what can only be described as a Career Best Performance. Also of note is Robert Pattinson, who is unrecognisable behind spectacles and a beard which surely houses its own ecosystem.
As The Lost City of Z moves into its third act and the later stages of Fawcett’s life, something resembling the film it could have been begins to seep in. Visions and what are perhaps memories occasionally colour a scene. The backdrop of a WWI trench transmutes into the jungles of Brazil, or a character walks from a building in England into the rainforest canopy. These intrusions by the poetic or magical seem to promise something to come, a lifting of the veil to reveal the film’s true hand. But it never comes.
Fawcett disappeared in 1925, lost to the Amazon rainforest, presumably without ever finding Z. As I said above, it is then understandable that Gray would withhold anything but the smallest glimpses of the city. After all, why should I, sitting in a cinema in Birmingham, get to see what Fawcett, who actually travelled to South America, never saw himself? But the film’s final act is always on the brink of showing us something grand, something inspiring, and so when it doesn’t we can’t help but feel disappointed.