The British explorer Percy Fawcett – driven crazy by his obsession to find a lost Amazonian city – vanished in the jungle in 1925. His story has everything you could possibly want in an adventure tale: treacherous colleagues, cannibals with bubbling pots, spears flying out of nowhere, shrunken heads, piranhas, even an opera troupe singing Mozart in the wild. But in the hands of ‘The Immigrant’ director James Gray (adapting David Grann’s thrilling 2009 book), it has something that most modern filmmakers would skim over in favour of action: a soulful sense of unresolved wanderlust, and an exquisitely developed tension between family responsibilities and the call of greatness over the horizon.
Shot by mighty cinematographer Darius Khondji (‘Seven’), ‘The Lost City of Z’ feels like it comes out of that epic 1970s moment when filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola and Werner Herzog dived into the mud on their own personal tests of will. Gray works at a relaxed pace; this isn’t ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’. Instead, he places the forward momentum wholly on leading actor Charlie Hunnam (producer Brad Pitt originally intended to star himself).
His occasional coarseness is a perfect match for Fawcett’s early frustrations as a colonel officer from a modest background – or, as one snob puts it, has been ‘rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors’. A Bolivian mapmaking job presents an opportunity for advancement and, with his bushy bearded aide Henry (Robert Pattinson), Fawcett leaves behind his encouraging wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), and young son.
The first expedition is thrilling, with its murmurs of discovery. But the film locks us in during Fawcett’s second quest, when his own natural humility among the tribespeople – a progressive attitude for the day – is tested by old duffers at the Royal Geographical Society, as well as a fatuous fellow traveller, the Antarctic explorer James Murray (Angus Macfayden, supplying humour exactly when it’s needed). At home, independent Nina dreams of adventure, and is disappointed by her husband’s sexist refusal to let her accompany him.
‘The Lost City of Z’ is so ambitious during its middle section, complete with tense showdowns in musty London drawing rooms and along grungy South American riverbanks, that you’ll almost explode with joy to realise that Gray has one more turn up his sleeve (too good to ruin here). World War I and deployment on the French front lines waylays Fawcett for a decade, but there he is, crying in his hospital bed at the glories he has yet to explore.
The grandeur of this movie is off the charts. For a certain kind of old-school movie fan, someone who believes in shapely, classical proportions and an epic yarn told over time, it will be the revelation of the year.