The film escapes the net of the evil European/noble savage dialectic by focusing on a driven lead character played by Charlie Hunnam
How does one make an a strapping adventure about colonial pursuits without either coming across as an imperialist or going overboard with virtue signaling?
Earlier this year Colombian director Ciro Guerra released one of the best films of the year, Embrace of the Serpent, which told a tale of early 20th century European explorers in the Amazon, from their guides point of view. James Grays The Lost City of Z, which shares a similar setting, isnt quite so revolutionary, but escapes the net of the evil European/noble savage dialectic by focusing on a driven lead character drawn to a higher, nobler purpose than fame and fortune.
It doesnt start out that way. When we meet Major Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a British officer billeted in Cork, Ireland, he is respected, but only to a degree. One one upper crust man fumphers to another hes been rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors. He looks dashing in a dress uniform, but still feels naked due to his lack of medals.
Opportunity to restore his family name comes in 1906, when the Royal Geographical Society decides to send someone to make a definitive border map between Bolivia and Brazil. The two nations are involved in a skirmish, which has the potential to cause havoc with the price of rubber. A neutral party could maybe calm things down. Oh, and it would also be for the betterment of science and all mankind, lets not forget that.
Fawcett accepts, and leaves behind his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and young son. Were this an older film Nina wouldnt be given a second thought, but as Fawcett makes his three trips over two decades, the sacrifices the adventurers family makes for the cause of exploration becomes, almost without warning, the central theme of the film.
There are three trips because, during that first one, Fawcett stumbles upon some physical evidence (and some native hearsay) of a civilization lost to time in the green desert of Amazonia. This predates the western discovery of Machu Picchu, so the thought of a lost city is swatted away like a childs talk of El Dorado, but once Fawcett is convinced, hes found his lifes purpose. His presentation to his peers at the RGS is a raucous barrage of old men tut-tutting (the best this Yanks seen since they used to show Prime Ministers Questions on late night television) but it gets him patronage from a benefactor with delusions of glory named James Murray (Angus Macfadyen).
Naturally, hes the member of the second expedition whos first to crack under harsh conditions, nearly sending everyone (including a quite amusing Robert Pattinson as Fawcetts explorer bro) to their deaths.
Much will be said about Grays cinematic craft (as is often the case when a director works with cinematographer Darius Khondji) but beneath the slow roll down the river pierced by arrows from unseen, defensive natives, theres a fascinating, mercurial screenplay that offers just enough to keep you journeying for more insight. Grays script (based on a nonfiction book by David Grann) swerves away from the expected tropes of determined madness in the jungle.
This is not Apocalypse Now or Aguirre, The Wrath of God. The tone is more like Robert Bolt, who followed men in compelling natural settings with the screenplays for Lawrence of Arabia, The Mission and The Bounty. (Indeed, an early match cut may be a deliberate nod to Lawrence.) This is an exploration into the morality of a driven individual, and how setbacks (like, I dont know, the First World War) shouldnt get you down.
With The Immigrant James Gray evolved into a type of film-maker determined the claim that they dont make em like that anymore. Even with a relatively modest budget (there arent any sweeping vistas with hundreds of extras) his intimate portraits have a wider scope than most blockbusters. Its final shot, which one-ups Grays punch-to-the-heart ending from The Immigrant, is a rich statement about wonder, beauty and loss; a small bit of perfection that all who regularly attend the cinema are on a seemingly fruitless quest to find.