In the days of British Empire, 1906, Percy Fawcett leaves his child and pregnant wife behind to go on an expedition into the heart of Bolivia. Why does he do this? Fawcett lives under the shade of his failed father and this cost him his family name. The expedition is his last hope to earn some honor and military distinction in a life where he keeps struggling to establish himself. But one does not simply walk into the jungles of Bolivia. It is place filled with terrible diseases, snakes, murderous Indians and frontier towns.
The story starts as a proper adventure tale as something written by Rudyard Kipling. Fawcett travels to a Bolivian frontier town and its rubber plantations to look for a guide, and picks up some fellow travelers along the way. The whole story plays out against the backdrop of war between Bolivia and Brazil, but that is never mentioned again. The film is shot with a soft golden sepia overlay that creates rich colors as something out of an old landscape painting. The cinematography is very beautiful but it doesn’t demand attention for itself. The jungle and the grizzled towns just feel very real in a lush, gritty way.
The film may take as its inspiration old pulp novels, but it presents itself as a thoughtful, rich adventure tale with undercurrents of modern sensibilities about equality and humanism. Actor Charlie Hunnam, who plays Fawcett, dictates this thoughtful mood with a solid, balanced performance. He is a quiet, worried man, more troubled by his station in life than inspired to explore the jungle. Nevertheless, he finds himself on this journey and his only goal is to find the source of the river. And it isn’t so much an adventure as a descent into a dark, dangerous land. This is a story full of terror and the danger of madness. When the Indian guide talks about a lost city of gold, this idea hooks itself into the man’s brain like a seed and keeps growing. It becomes a reward, a fight against a ceiling that he has known all his life.
When Fawcett finds himself home again within the first hour of the movie, it’s clear that this film is not about that first journey. It’s about Fawcett himself as a character and the obsession he develops with finding the lost city of gold. For Fawcett, he has been struggling against the narrowmindedness of the upper class for his entire life, and now that upper class refuses to believe that the Indians could have any civilization. Proving them wrong has become a personal quest for him, because these stiff upper lips have hold him down his whole life. His wife (Sienna Miller) is on a similar quest. She stays at home, frustrated, while she wants to join this boy’s adventure.
A highlight of the story comes halfway into the film, when the nasty James Murray (Angus Macfadyen) joins the expedition. After that, the film keeps rolling onwards from one thing to another in a slow pace, but beautiful, like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007).
This is a modern day reimagining of the old genre of the adventure exploration story. Fawcett was a real character and his story would surely have been told very differently, had this film been shot decades ago. But the theme of the film stays elusive throughout its running time. It is not exactly about the excitement of exploration, and it is not exactly about class equality and emancipation. It is a little bit about all of these things but doesn’t stick to any one theme. The reasons for Fawcett’s expeditions change through the years, and the film feels a bit unfocused by this and lengthy. It’s like the film keeps changing its mind about what it wants to be about.
The Lost City of Z, while a beautifully shot film and a nice throwback to the adventure stories of long ago, lacks focus and direction, making it rather slow. As a viewer I am left unsure how to regard this, as the film hardly attempts to say anything, or whispers many small things that don’t make much impact.