When Percy Fawcett gazes upon the Amazon in The Lost City of Z, he does so with wonder blazing in his eyes. A real-life geographer, soldier and explorer played here by Charlie Hunnam, Fawcett is dispatched from Britain to South America to survey the border between Bolivia and Brazil, only to become beguiled by his new rainforest surroundings. Many movies would explain his reaction through dialogue alone, but James Gray's latest effort works in more than just words. The filmmaker behind The Immigrant and We Own The Night, Gray is known for crafting precise, painterly visuals. It's little wonder that his excursion through tropical greenery shares Fawcett's fondness in each and every frame.
To watch The Lost City of Z is to stare deep into the splendour of untamed nature, and to appreciate the mystery and allure that comes simply from looking. The colour and movement; the locals and the wildlife; the sense of how different it is to early 20th century England — it's all there, in cinematographer Darius Khondji's striking images. It's an essential touch, given that examining the mindset that inspired Fawcett's repeated treks into the jungle is one of the movie's main aims. If there were ever any doubts that Gray would be able to jump from his urban-set back catalogue to the grandness of the Amazonian wilds, they're quickly dispelled.
When we first meet Fawcett, he's a young army officer hunting stag for sport. He's considered talented, yet a shadow hangs over his family name thanks to his drunken father. Asked to do the Royal Geographic Society's bidding on the other side of the world, he soon leaves his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and infant son for trampling through luscious growth, with Corporal Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and on-site guides for company. If he hadn't fallen for the Amazon's magnetism, as well as a story about a lost city teeming with gold, his jaunt might've ended with a happy return home. But Fawcett is haunted by his desire to find the fabled locale — and prove that advanced civilisation exists beyond western society — even if it costs him his life.
As the film's existential adventures continue, Pattinson gets grimy, Tom Holland pops up, as does Italian acting legend Franco Nero. Ultimately though, The Lost City of Z belongs to Hunnam, who wipes King Arthur from our memory. Poised, passionate and persistent, with ample charm thrown in, he plays his protagonist as an imperfect but still decent man driven by a multitude of motivators. The character is also surprisingly progressive, breaking from the racist, sexist, classist, jingoistic and colonialist attitudes of his peers. In short, he's the sort of person you'd be willing to follow through dense foliage. Just as seeing is believing when it comes to Gray's mesmerising sights, Hunnam ensures viewers feel the calling coursing through Fawcett's veins.
Accordingly, The Lost City of Z becomes more than just a dazzling account of a real-life trek through uncharted terrain. That's not to say that it doesn't impress as an intimate adventure flick, an exploration of fevered obsession, or as a textured and thoughtful biopic — in fact, it succeeds as all three. But what lingers most of all is an understanding of why people chase even the most challenging and unlikely of dreams, what they hope to find, and how such mysteries leave their mark on history.