The old-school adventure epic is something of an endangered species.
The Lost City of Z, which dramatises Percy Fawcett’s adventures in South America, is a thrilling reminder of the genre’s potential. The real-life British soldier made trips to the Amazon in the early 20th century in search of an ancient civilisation.
The movie, based on a book by David Grann, plays fast and loose with the facts. It depicts Fawcett, played by Charlie Hunnam, as a brave open-minded pioneer, chafing against the strictures of a British society that labels the indigenous people “savages”.
In truth, Fawcett probably did the same. But that would have been a non-starter for a 2017 hero.
The careful attention to modern-day sensibilities comes across conspicuously in the depiction of Percy’s wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), a self-professed “independent woman”, who makes a case for accompanying her husband on his trips. Instead, she ends up stuck at home.
Fawcett’s first trip is a mission he’s loath to accept on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society to help define the border between Brazil and Bolivia. Fawcett agrees to go after he’s promised advancement should he succeed.
Once he realises how dangerous the mission is, he begins to second-guess that choice. Along with his aide-de-camp, Henry Costin (a wonderful Robert Pattinson, unrecognisable under a beard), a native guide (Pedro Coello) and other helpers, Fawcett learns just how risky a river cruise down the Amazon can be.
In one harrowing scene, a tribe unleashes an onslaught of arrows on the travellers. Those who survive nearly starve, although blood poisoning from gangrenous wounds or disease could kill them first.
Fawcett stumbles upon pottery in the jungle, and ancient art carved into rock. He isn’t sure what this place is, but he knows he must return to investigate. But how to convince the Royal Geographical Society to send him back, when it doesn’t want to acknowledge such a civilisation could predate England’s?
The Lost City of Z was directed by James Gray, who capably transitions from more self-contained stories – Two Lovers, We Own the Night – to this sprawling saga that whisks audiences from Cork, Ireland, to the rain forest to the trenches of World War I France. The movie is long, but never slow, even as it leaves ample time to survey the breathtaking vistas.
In an effort to make Fawcett a logical guy, the story never fully convinces us of his obsession with returning to find the lost city. The choice might be hard to fathom, but it’s still a thrill to watch.