The Amazon has proved a perilous environment for films to venture into over the years. For every Fitzcarraldo that has discovered the cinematic El Dorado, there have been more than a few pictures that have gotten stuck in the festering backwaters of movie ignominy – we’re looking at you Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Gearing up for the latest trek into the rainforest is new release Lost City of Z. Let’s hope they’ve brought a map and a compass.
James Gray’s sixth feature film follows Colonel Percival Fawcett (played by Sons of Anarchy’s Charlie Hunnam) the renowned early 20th Century explorer. Tired of his army exile in Ireland, Fawcett dreams of breaking through the inertia of the Edwardian class system and redeeming his family name. When a chance for glory lands on his lap, he leaps at the opportunity. The unexpected boon comes from the Royal Geographical Society as the young officer is sent to South America to map the border of Brazil and Bolivia. Venturing deep into the rainforest Fawcett and his loyal companion Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) stumble upon the remains of a potentially ancient undiscovered society. Titling this culture “Z” the colonel returns to England to show his findings. Fawcett’s contemporaries, however, refuse to accept this revelation – “Are you suggesting these savages’ civilization predates our own” scoffs one. Only another series of adventures into the jungle will prove the explorer’s beliefs.
Lost City of Z. Studio Canal.
The jungle in cinema has always been synonymous with madness. Characters who delve deep into the undergrowth stray away from civilization and therefore (in filmic terms) sanity. Like Herzog’s great heroes – Aguirre, Dieter, Fitzgerald – Hunnam’s character is painted as a man driven by obsession, a thirst for the truth, but a compulsion that sets him against friends and family nonetheless. Back at home Fawcett’s wife Nina (subtly performed by Sienna Miller) supports the adventurer’s family while he is away years on end. The absence creates strain on the marriage – but not as much as Nina’s suggestion that she accompany Fawcett into the jungle, and an interesting subplot of oppressive Edwardian gender norms emerges in Lost City’s background.
There’s a rough, unpolished edge to Gray’s film: not everything feels to be quite where it should. The narrative is peculiarly shaped and some of the usual (some would say generic) plot events for action-adventures are noticeably absent. Moreover some of Lost City’s camera angles and editing feel more akin to an indie short than a multi-million dollar movie. The film’s production was racked with uncertainty. Brad Pitt was originally set to play the lead role. After the actor pulled out in 2010, staying on as an executive producer, the project’s future looked precarious – even more so when second choice Benedict Cumberbatch also withdrew. Money was collected by a series of smaller production companies and a full cinematic release appeared doubtful for a time.
Charlie Hunnam as Colonel Fawcett in Lost City of Z. Studio Canal.
For some, Lost City’s oddities will appear as imperfections – it’s certainly not a flawless film. The unkempt and uncultured nature of this jungle project, however, does lend its story a wilder edge. So far has the picture strayed from the blueprint of a Hollywood adventure, that it’s almost unpredictable. It has departed so significantly from the map, and out here a dangerous plot twist could linger behind every densely overgrown thicket. Fawcett ends up hallucinating from thirst, captured by natives, and in one particularly impressive sequence, fighting in the trenches of WWI. The film’s close, however, comes down like a jaguar from the treetops, and audiences will be split as to whether Lost City’s final moments provide a fitting conclusion.
There’s a lot to pick holes in with this explorer biopic, but there’s also a lot to like. Lost City wraps itself up in the oddity of the jungle and revels in the madness of the trees. It’s hard to make monotonous undergrowth cinematic, but Gray manages to turn the rainforest into a cauldron of thriving activity – if Hunnam is the lead, the Amazon deserves at least a co-star credit. Does the picture find El Dorado? No. But plenty of smaller treasures are unearthed along the way.