The Lost City of Z, available to stream on Amazon Prime, details the exploits of real-life explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam). It covers his efforts in the early 1900s to find a supposed lost city deep in the Amazon jungle.
In what could have been a simple, by the numbers adventure, director James Gray opts for a more thought-provoking tale instead. Where it would have been easy to focus on the grand adventure and epic scale of it all, the story delves in Fawcett’s psyche. It explores some of the more personal and home-bound ramifications of his constant ventures into the Amazon.
Fawcett initially journeys into the Amazon with the intent of mapping the boundary between Bolivia and Brazil. With the two countries nearly at war with each other over this dispute, they asked the British to assist as an independent third party.
Fawcett sees this as an opportunity to restore honor to his family name. His father was a known drunk and left the family in a state of disrepute. This has had an adverse effect on Fawcett’s career prospects, so he’s eager to clean up his family history.
What’s interesting here is how Fawcett teeters on the edge of turning into his father. He doesn’t become a drunk like him, but he does become drunk on adventure. He can’t help himself from going back to the Amazon over and over. Finding the supposed lost city is his obsession, his white whale.
During Fawcett’s first foray into the jungle, his native guide, Tadjui, tells him of an ancient city covered in gold. Unconvinced, Fawcett initially dismisses his stories. But then he finds pottery pieces and statues hidden in the jungle. This convinces him that there might be some truth to Tadjui’s stories. And it’s here where his obsession begins.
But it doesn’t come without a cost. And it’s at this point where The Lost City of Z turns from adventure to introspective drama. During his first expedition, his wife Nina (played by an excellent Sienna Miller) gave birth to their second son. This is a recurring theme throughout the movie. Fawcett continually sacrifices his family for the sake of the lost city.
The juxtaposition of Fawcett the hero explorer and Fawcett the failing man is fascinating. And Hunnam has never been better. He plays a tortured man, struggling to reconcile his need to find the lost city with his duties as a husband and father. And time and again he choose the lost city over his family.
The fact that Fawcett opens the movie as a truly dedicated family man makes this descent even more heartbreaking. He and Nina treat their marriage as an equal partnership, uncommon for the time. But Fawcett forces Nina into the more traditional-for-the-time role caretaker, putting her wants and needs and dreams below his.
While it would have been a welcome addition to see Miller’s get a little more to work with, her getting pushed to the background helped clearly illustrate the man Fawcett had become. Gray didn’t write her as your stereotypical underwritten female character. Rather, it showed how Percy’s actions and motivations forced her into the background. The story essentially forced Gray into this choice.
Nina could have easily been written as a subordinate wife from the beginning. But then Percy’s character change wouldn’t have anywhere near the same devastating effect as it ultimately does. We see directly how his lost city obsession affects and changes Nina’s life – not to mention his children’s lives as well.
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In choosing to focus on the personal and psychological aspects, Gray took this story to emotional depths that many directors likely wouldn’t have. The Lost City of Z could have easily turned into a National Treasure-esque adventure story. But Gray’s commitment to his vision and directorial command make this a much more powerful and impactful story.