There is, of course, the fundamental difference between exploration and colonialism. The former primarily functions in the name of science and history, charting paths for the curious among humanity and finding out what it means in the context of the historical record. The latter primarily functions as a means to force upon older civilizations the institution of a new one, often by way of killing the old one in some manner (by genocide or marginalization or both). The Lost City of Z, writer/director James Gray's adaptation of the book by David Grann, examines the thin line between these phenomena, with the hero of the story vehemently opposed to the colonialist leanings of his fellows in favor of archaeological exploration. This film is an astonishment of reverent and relevant themes of human endurance and arrogance.
The hero is real-life figure Percy Fawcett, whose tour as a lieutenant colonel with the British Army brought the man to the Royal Geographical Society, of which his father was a Fellow, and ultimately to the forests of South America, where the possible existence of a lost city known as Z (pronounced "zed" by those involved, in accordance with the non-American pronunciation of the 26th letter of the alphabet) would drive him to lead seven expeditions into the Amazon to search for it. The toll, of course, was unexpected, and the question of success in those expeditions is complicated by the fact that, in May 1926, Fawcett and his son Jack disappeared. An end-film coda here explains the extension of Fawcett's legacy, but while the coda is earned, it's hardly reassuring.
The primary function of this film's dramatization of the events, then, is elemental in nature. Fawcett, played with restraint and determination by Charlie Hunnam in a great performance, has the weight of his father's legacy on his shoulders when the Fellows of the RGS (led by Ian McDiarmid and Clive Francis as Sirs George Goldie and John Scott Keltie) fund his expedition, which begins as a surveying occupation. Accompanying him the first time are Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and Edward Ashley (Arthur Manley), whose travel down a river from which there has never been a return is complicated greatly by a frightening arrow attack in which they lose one of their number. Later, James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), who has captured fame as being second-in-command to Sir Ernest Shackleton on one of his expeditions to the Arctic, joins the crew, which only leads to trouble upon an encounter with a tribe of cannibals.
The existence of the tribe, as well as the discovery that said tribe has a genuine political infrastructure (that, yes, revolves around the ability to eat people, although the reason for doing so, we learn, is surprisingly contained to their own way of living), falls on the deaf ears of the members of the RGS when Fawcett and his men return from "the bush." The interest is in the colonization of the area where, Fawcett believes, an uncharted civilization resides. Years later, when Fawcett's earlier attempts have failed and after the start of WWI nearly brings him to death's door, he learns of an armed expedition to the same spot he once traveled. His terse response to the messenger sums up well his attitude toward the issue of colonialism - in particular, the utter futility of it.
Perhaps this is what brings him to the point, later in life, of journeying there again, this time with his son Jack (Tom Holland) and with his devoted wife Nina's (Sienna Miller) reluctant permission. The final act of Gray's film is steeped in the kind of opacity of decision-making that only a tincture of time can produce. It feels authentic to what really happened, even as Gray's screenplay condenses the number of expeditions taken by Fawcett (one of which, incredibly enough, was alone) for the purposes of a condensed dramatic structure. This is a great film, awash with grandiose imagery (courtesy of cinematographer Darius Khondji's natural lighting) and intimate in its portrayal of the far reaches of the human experience. The film does not try to answer the question of what happened to Fawcett, and the resulting ambiguity of its ending (which finds the film searching for something as thoroughly elusive as the lost city itself) distinguishes The Lost City of Z as a once-in-a-blue-moon treasure.
Charlie Hunnam (Percy Fawcett), Robert Pattinson (Henry Costin), Sienna Miller (Nina Fawcett), Edward Ashley (Arthur Manley), Tom Holland (Jack Fawcett), Angus Macfadyen (James Murray), Ian McDiarmid (Sir George Goldie), Clive Francis (Sir John Scott Keltie).
Directed and written by James Gray, based on the book by David Grann.
Rated PG-13 (violence, disturbing images, brief language, nudity).
Released in select cities on April 14, 2017.