Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), scion of a once-esteemed family, soldier and capital-A Adventurer, traipses through an Amazonian rainstorm. He has come to the jungle in search of Z, the great lost city he is certain exists within its dense green. Thanks to James Murray, a poorly chosen travel companion (Angus Macfadyn) who proves himself thoroughly unprepared and unequipped for the hostile environment, the expedition has been a nightmare on its good days. Even with the ailing Murray dispatched back to civilization, Fawcett’s mission and the man himself stand on the brink. Still, he presses on. As he forages through the storm, Fawcett comes upon a fissure in a rock wall. He calls out to his companions (Robert Pattinson, Robert Pattinson’s Impressive Beard and Edward Ashley) that he’ll go see if it’s traversable. He makes his way in, and looks up. And when he does, Fawcett is vindicated. A face, simultaneously serene and stern, has been carved into the rock at the crevasse’s top. It was, without a doubt, made by human hands. Fawcett stares, caught between somewhere between astonishment and joy.
Alas, the moment cannot last. First, an unexpected wave snaps Fawcett out of his reverie. Then, his right hand Costin (Pattinson and his Impressive Beard) catches up to him, and Fawcett learns that, however close they might be, continuing is impossible. Before departing, Murray, delirious or spiteful, destroyed the party’s food stores. With only a week’s supplies left, Fawcett chooses the lives of his men over Z, and turns back to civilization. The retreat is a bitter one, for Z was within his grasp. It will prove more bitter when Murray, unexpectedly alive, ungraciously and inaccurately accuses Fawcett of abandoning him. Despised by his former peers in the Royal Geographical Society, faced with the reality that he’s neglected his family (wife Nina, [Sienna Miller] and son Jack, [Tom Holland]) and injured fighting in World War I, Fawcett nevertheless continues to carry his obsessive dream of Z with him. His glimpse of the lost city haunts him, and it ultimately leads both him and Jack back to the Amazon, where will both vanish into history.
There’s a multitude of reasons to love The Lost City of Z. Charlie Hunnam, often poorly deployed (most recently in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, the would-be epic with a bafflingly tiny title font) or underappreciated (his collaborations with Guillermo del Toro, where he does fine work as two deeply decent, deeply different men) does all-time work as Fawcett, a performance that stretches decades and requires Hunnam to sell Fawcett’s shifting ambitions and identity. He more than delivers, particularly in his late scenes with Holland who, along with Miller and Pattinson offer superb foils to Hunnam. Pattinson shares his complicated love of the jungle, but seeks a life beyond the often-quixotic quest for Z. Miller shares his passion for exploration and belief in the city, but finds herself stymied by the patriarchy he thoughtlessly reinforces. Holland loathes the distant figure he knew mostly as the man who wasn’t there, but comes to love the father whose jungle lives in his heart and soul.
Khondji’s cinematography is not merely lush, it’s deep. The depth of the rainforest and its multitude of greens, the grey fury of a storm, the glow of ceremonial fires, and smoke rising into a starless night. They’re images, that, when placed in motion by Khondji, become suffused with the weight of Fawcett’s story and life.
James Gray’s script runs across a quarter of a century, several continents, one World War and a climax that recalls 2001’s Jupiter sequence. It’s packed with a multitude of characters with distinct voices. Its tone ranges from ecstatic to melancholy and at its end, transcendent. It would have been very easy for The Lost City of Z to degenerate into an unwieldy mess. But as a writer and director, Gray makes everything fit. Not a second of the picture’s 2 hours and 21 minutes is wasted, nor are any of those minutes dull.
It’s incredible filmmaking. But the way it shapes time and space around Z is particularly successful. The fabled city is never seen, but, from the moment Fawcett discovers the first clues of its existence, it is everywhere and contrasts with everything. England’s upper crust is hopelessly stuffy, and too consumed with its Eurocentric conception of history to grasp what Z’s existence would mean. Home, for all of Fawcett’s loved ones, feels somehow empty. Z and the Amazon pervade the whole of Fawcett’s life, spectral forces that throw everything and everyone else into contrast for him. During the movie’s last act, where Fawcett and Jack pass into the unknown, Z’s presence mutates. It is not finding the city that matters. It is the search, and all that has come with it, that mattered. In sharing his dream with those he has loved, and in acknowledging the Sisyphean value of the hunt, Fawcett finds peace. He and Jack vanish, and become mystery. Z lives forever.