As a task-oriented person, I’ve generally been inclined to call bullshit when people tell me “the journey is its own reward.” But while endlessly journeying is not an experience I myself want to pursue, it can be awfully interesting to watch someone else do it. Such is the case with the new film The Lost City of Z. British explorer Percy Fawcett spent much of his adult life journeying – toward validation and achievement, as much as toward the ancient city itself – and in telling his story, the well-written and well-made The Lost City of Z offers audiences a rewarding payoff.
Based on David Grann’s non-fiction book by the same name, the movie spans more than two decades in the early twentieth century in which Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) relentlessly and often single-mindedly searched for the ancient civilization he believes he stumbled upon while on a military mission to the Amazon. There are various other travelers on expeditions along the way, including former Antarctic explorer James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), but British corporal Henry Costin most consistently accompanies Fawcett. Played with a reserved humor by Robert Pattinson, Costin is Fawcett’s most trusted travel companion and often the only one who can convince Fawcett to see reason. Navigating both the deadly jungle environment and politics of British exploration, Fawcett becomes obsessed with proving the existence of his lost city, as well as the skills and knowledge of the native South American people who would have developed it.
The problem with relentless pursuit is that it leaves very little room for contentment. One of the most interesting things about Fawcett in this film is that he has a happy marriage and seems to genuinely love and like his wife Nina (Sienna Miller), as well as his children, but neither is enough to anchor him at home. This is not a man tilting at windmills for the sake of escaping an unhappy situation; Fawcett is a man who has many of the things we equate with a full life – family, security, love – and is still consistently compelled to leave it all in favor of a lonely, arduous, and possibly hopeless quest. Aside from a minor storyline that suggests Fawcett is working to overcome his “rather unfortunate choice in ancestors,” writer and director James Grey (We Own the Night, The Immigrant) lets audiences consider Fawcett’s motivations for themselves.
That said, Grey does seem to be firmly on the side of the adventurer. Audiences can feel the draw of “Amazonia” every time Percy returns to England. Much of the film takes place outdoors, and several scenes are backed by gorgeous sunsets or the soft light of dusk filtering through trees. Even the indoor scenes are lit from the outside, and Grey does it in such a way that you feel almost certain that whatever is beyond the walls is preferable to what’s within them.
The film is a little long at 140 minutes, but it’s surprisingly efficient and moves quickly, as it needs to in order tell the stories of multiple quests to the Amazon and a World War. Even as the efforts to convincingly age the cast in appearance over a quarter century leave something to be desired, the natural growth and change in the characters’ personalities and perspectives is more authentic when stretched over decades than in stories that don’t have the same luxury of time. To be clear, no one changes drastically, but Costin, Nina, and Percy and Nina’s oldest son Jack all slowly shift in their views of Percy’s devotion to his discovery. The changes aren’t dramatic; they come from the natural evaluation of aging and maturity, fitting the timeline of the movie and story. More importantly, they stand in stark contrast to Percy’s own static nature related to the would-be discovery.
The Lost City of Z is an epic adventure story without being an action story, and in Grey’s hands that style is well balanced and effective. There are exciting moments along the way, but nothing is more compelling than Fawcett, his drive to succeed, and the confidence he has in his mission. As more than two hours pass in the theater and two decades pass on the screen, The Lost City of Z is engaging in a way that makes it easy to get caught up in the journey.