Film Review – The Lost City of Z
The Lost City of Z
Percy Fawcett went looking for a lost city in the unmapped jungles of the Amazon – several times – and never returned.
Fawcett’s story holds inherent interest – it’s estimated around a hundred subsequent adventurers died looking for him – and it could be told a lot of ways. For The Lost City of Z, director James Gray went with ‘British costume melodramatic biopic’, giving equal weight to his adventures in the jungle and the toll they take on his family. It’s an intriguing choice that challenges the Indiana Jones undertones of Fawcett’s story, while firmly conforming to the conventions of recent biopics that display a fawning reverence for a (usually British) man’s genius, largely ignore the specifics of his life’s work, and gawk at his turbulent domestic life. The Lost City isn’t clearing too high a bar in showing more depth than its recent ancestors, The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game. Regardless, its emphasis on Fawcett’s social context renders him among the least interesting parts of his own story, while leaving under-developed the fascinating margins it gestures toward.
The Lost City’s best dramatic decision its emphasis on Fawcett as a man of his social context. The film portrays Fawcett’s adventure is bound up in the larger colonial ambitions of is era, and his admirable character traits as bound up with ones we might be less forgiving of today. Fawcett’s desire to find the Amazonian city he calls “Z” is portrayed as the ambition of a political progressive at the tail end of the age of colonial exploration. He’s frustrated by the cruelty he sees the Europeans inflict on the South American natives, and worried about what their ‘progress’ is doing to the region. He corrects his peers who call the tribespeople “Indians”. For better or worse, he is also driven by a desire to reclaim his family’s loss of upper-crust respectability. Less sympathetically, he’s very much a believer in gender roles of the day, expecting his wife to manage the household and unconcerned by the effect his long absences have on his family. A model of professional competence in the field, Fawcett is both dismissed by polite society and dismissive of the household he heads.
I know these are film’s themes because they’re also the film’s dialogue. The Lost City of Z is a movie where stuff happens, and then characters immediately state the take-away points. Various semi-reliable narrators accuse Fawcett’s high-minded rhetoric of masking how he only cares about his damn lost city, lines from a similar screenwriting sensibility that gave this film ‘let’s hope [World War I] shall be a short conflict’. It’s easy to praise the film for acknowledging the fallout from Fawcett’s actions, while wishing it would have found better ways to dramatize them. Another result is that Fawcett seems less like a rounded character than a blank vessel filled with textbook bullet points. It’s tough to fault Charlie Hunnam, who plays Fawcett, though, as the direction and script don’t give him much room to maneuver.
At the margins of Fawcett’s story are a few interesting supporting characters, of which the most well-rounded (character and physique-wise) is James Murray (Angus McFadyen), an experienced and initially-game explorer who’s quick to pull rank when the going gets tough. Beyond him, though, the characters mostly show where the film’s sense of social awareness runs up against its limitations. Fawcett’s wife Nina (Sienna Miller) gets a monologue about how her husband never considers her interests, but the film doesn’t bother to give her an interesting story arc of her own, either. Fawcett is open-minded enough to not judge a tribal society he encounters for eating human flesh – but the tribespeople are nonetheless portrayed as threatening murderous cannibals, largely without their own story except maybe being within their rights to defend against the white people who enslave them and steal their natural resources. (*to the film’s credit, they are portrayed as endo-cannibals – that is, that don’t eat their enemies but respectfully consume their own kin.)
As a British-trained anthropologist myself, I probably know just enough to be frustrated by the film’s depiction of tribal societies and the foreigners who explore in their territory. I didn’t come to The Lost City expecting academic detail, though I did hope it would reflect some of the current wisdom and perspective of those who engage with tribal societies in the course of their work – and, more importantly, from tribespeople themselves. Instead, the movie is quick to point out that Fawcett and his contemporaries have blind spots with regards to gender and culture, but neither does it send its female and native characters to the fore. The result is a movie where the emphasis is on how a white guy’s upstanding qualities include not judging a bunch of underdeveloped cannibals. This tendency to laud Fawcett for being open-minded about the stereotypical natives comes into full fruition in the movie’s infuriating, astonishingly misguided final minutes (whether one reads them figuratively or literally).
The limits of Lost City’s portrayal of the natives stands in contrast to the recent, similarly-themed Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpent (2016), in which an Amazonian tribesman encounters a succession of explorers. Like Lost City, Serpent depicts brave explorers with admirable goals must navigate their place in a destructive colonial eco-system. Unlike Lost City, Serpent encourages the audience to empathize with both its native character and his interlopers’ perspectives through a drama that is at times conversational, at times hallucinatory, and always clear. Serpent thought through (and for the most part, deftly navigated) a host of issues Lost City ignores, and is a very rich film as a result.
On a more technical level, Lost City also has the common biopic problem of appropriating the authority of its ‘real life’ subject while not extensively engaging with the subject’s life work. Specifically, it doesn’t explain what was so controversial about his claims of a lost city. Some dialogue suggests it was tainted by conquistadors’ fruitless quest for El Dorado, while others suggest the snobbish cultural paradigms of the time wouldn’t allow that the South American natives were capable of building cities. It’s likely these elements played a role, but the technical reasons why Fawcett met with resistance remain un-articulated. The British Empire had been pillaging world wonders for centuries; one more massive city wouldn’t have shaken their colonial worldview. For what it’s worth, David Grann’s original article – which he expanded into the book on which the movie is based, all three sharing the same name – suggests the dispute was more scientific: “academic experts believed that the Amazon—with its oppressive heat and nutrient-poor soil, which resisted modern attempts at farming—could simply not sustain large settled populations” An irony is that – if Lost City seeks to address long-discarded deterministic, evolutionary paradigms of culture (where in the present is portrayed as the apex toward which the past was aiming), it also makes it all too too easy to root for Fawcett’s (presently acceptable) traits and condemn his bad ones. Lost City, too, thinks present-day audiences are (or can be) a bit more advanced than the Victorian and Edwardian era’s own ‘primitives.’
Finally, Grann’s original article (which is much more about his own and subsequent quests to find Fawcett’s trail than Fawcett himself) does portray the explorer as a resourceful Indiana Jones-type. Other sources suggest the real-life explorer served as a model for the fictional hero (they even met once). Had the film gone the action route, the chaotic boar hunt that opens the movie – with horses falling all around as Fawcett as fellow hunters pursue a boar through an Irish forest – shows that Gray can pace an exciting action scene.