Is it weird that I found a film about a twentieth century explorer who goes missing in the Amazonian jungle while looking for a lost civilization to be highly inspirational? I’m not saying I’m going to run off to The Amazon but while watching James Gray’s adventure/biographical picture “The Lost City of Z” the idea of exploration and traveling seems awfully appealing. That is by far the most surprising thing about “The Lost City of Z.”
With little more than that simple plot summary (explorer goes missing in jungle) I went into Gray’s film expecting an “Aguirre: The Wrath of God” type experience; another story of an obsessive, crazed and delusional conqueror aimlessly traversing mysterious jungles for wealth and personal glory. Instead, I got a more uplifting, more enlightening experience. Sure, British explorer Percy Fawcit (Charlie Hunnam, in a sturdy, wonderstruck performance) is obsessive and slightly crazy. You have to be if you want to explore the Amazonian jungle. But his obsessive and crazy tendencies don’t come from a sinister or antagonistic place but one of genuine curiosity and thirst for exploration.
“The Lost City of Z” is about a man who becomes seduced by the wonders of the jungle and is never able to truly leave it. Even when Fawcit is back in England, or in a muddy trench during World War 1 the jungle’s alluring siren song (the tranquil sound of rushing river water, pleasant bird songs, the ambient buzzing of insects, the thrilling woosh of native Amazonian spears whizzing past his head) and the prospect of finding a previously unknown (to western knowledge) ancient civilization, linger in his psyche.
“The Lost City of Z” is a celebration of exploration and adventure, not in the context of conquest, not as a means of acquiring wealth, land and commodities, but adventure for the sake of shear curiosity and personal discovery. Fawcit wants to visit new lands and observe new cultures for his own personal enlightenment and education. Fawcit is both progressive in his views and alienated in his home country, where he’s surrounded by people who still have a Eurocentric mindset. Even the established explorers are narrow-minded and flat out racist in their view of people and cultures outside of the West, referring to the Native Amazonians as “savages.”
Gray’s film is an enriching film about getting outside your comfort zone and opening your mind to different people and cultures. It depicts the pure joy of exploration — venturing to strange and unfamiliar places is good for the soul.
Throughout the picture, Gray brings depth and dimension to the Amazonian jungle. This is not a dark, one-dimensional continent of antagonism and savagery but a place of beauty and innovation. In a scene towards the middle, Fawcit and his team spend a few days living with a tribe of natives, where they observe advanced farming and fishing techniques and simply converse with the villagers — getting to know them. These natives aren’t savages or colonial subjects but fellow humans.
Gray humanizes this region of the world while at the same time retaining its mystery and otherworldliness. The picture puts us firmly in the shoes of an outsider—seeing things that few westerners have seen. Gray and cinematographer Darius Khondji evoke this particular time period and place extremely well. The movie was shot on heavily saturated 35 mm film; the scenes often look grainy and have a yellowish tint. This effect gives the movie a beautiful and authentic period look, as if you’re looking at old photographs or an ethnographic film made about the region. Though you’ve probably seen The Amazon before, (whether in person or in a media) while watching “Lost City” it feels like you’re seeing these places, along with Fawcit, for the first time.
With all that being said, Gray avoids completely romanticizing his film and subject both by emphasizing the grittiness and palpable danger of trekking through a jungle (whether it be hostile natives, violent river rapids, harmful reptiles and insects) and showing the negative effects this kind of life can have on your loved ones. Fawcit may adore the jungle and its inhabitants but he frequently neglects his loyal wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and kids. These domestic scenes provide Fawcit with some much-needed depth, particularly when they expose a glaring shade of hypocrisy.
A few days before his second expedition, Nina expresses her own interest in exploring the Amazon along with him, an idea that Fawcit immediately shoots down. A heated argument follows, wherein Fawcit explains that a woman’s place is in the home. For a guy with such progressive views regarding race and other cultures, this is an incredibly sexist thing to say. Ultimately, I wish the film devoted more scenes to this matter (after that argument, the issue is pretty much dropped) but it’s an interesting point of conflict that makes Fawcit into a three dimensional, flawed character.
Even with its classic linear biopic structure, “The Lost City of Z” took me by surprise with its near flawless craftsmanship, its humanist and sympathetic outlook on cultures outside The West and the way it beautifully illustrates the joys of traveling and adventure. Maybe I will run off to The Amazon after all.