From Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea to King Kong and far beyond, there have been countless expeditions to parts unknown over the course of cinema history. Yes these adventures may have occupied the silver screen on innumerable occasions, yet few are grounded in reality and told with historical context like The Lost City of Z. Based on the novel, The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann, this film tells the factual story of Percival Fawcett’s puzzling disappearance, a Colonel who sets out to map the uncharted forests of the Amazon in the early 1900s. What begins as the simple desire for a medal soon becomes a lifelong obsession after Fawcett discovers what he believes to be evidence of an ancient city. This incites the soldier to return to the Amazon many more times over the course of his life in an attempt to discovery his fabled lost city.
This film delves deep into a man’s psyche, exploring the lengths he will go in order to indulge his compulsion, but it also transmits additional themes throughout its nearly two and a half hour running time . We see a narcissistic British society so snobbish and arrogant in its conquest of the world that it refuses to adhere to Fawcett’s claims of the Amazonian natives’ technological prowess, something the presumptive British culture believes impossible. We observe the passage of time, and the toll unfulfilled ambitions can have on a man’s body and mind. We follow the loyalty of love, family, friendship, and sacrifice in the face of certain death and impossible odds. Perhaps the most central of theme is the one that is innate in all of us: the primitive need for adventure. The Lost City of Z is not some hapless venture into the jungle with zany characters though, it’s cast in gritty clay—that of realism, events that took place over one hundred years ago. Thanks to its basis on truth, we watch the great undertakings into the Amazonian foliage—rife with danger—through a more personnel lens, one brimming with empathy. When our explorers face a barrage of arrows from a hostile tribe or run low on supplies we feel it, for these were real people submitting themselves to the great and perilous unknown.
Our sympathies are also preyed upon through the cast’s superb acting. Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy), Robert Pattinson (The Twilight Saga) Sienna Miller (American Sniper) play very different roles that are nevertheless equally central to the narrative and expertly represented. For example, Miller’s character assumes an equivalently treacherous endeavor to Hunnam’s in the form of Edwardian era England. She is a strong female lead fighting for the ability to lend her voice to discussions that are traditionally reserved for males of the time.
While achieving its goals as an emotional thriller, The Lost City of Z similarly captures the tension of action in its portrayal of adrenaline pumping conflict. You won’t find any The Fast and Furious style set pieces with exaggerated CGI here. However, you will find gritty plausibility—men clinging to rickety rifts as they struggle to stay afloat on a vicious river, Jaguars stalking malnourished individuals through the undergrowth, and the horrors of World War 1 in Saving Private Ryan-equse dramatic performances.
The Lost City of Z will undoubtedly be too dry for some; it’s certainly not a popcorn fodder experience. It is for adventurers, however, like those depicted on film—a band of viewers willing to explore humanity in one of history’s greatest mysteries.
After the press screening had concluded, director James Gray and cast members Sienna Miller, Robert Pattinson, Tom Holland and Angus Macfadyen took to the stage at the 54th New York Film Festival to discuses the filming process with NYFF director Kent Jones.
Kent Jones: What you saw in the material, if I could just be allowed a little bit of interpretive leeway, was the pursuit of the sublime?
James Gray: It actually didn’t start that way. I was very interested in Fawcett’s character, and it had to do with the striving—the social class thing, which I thought was very interesting. Here was a guy who was of great accomplishment in many ways but extremely upset at himself and the world. I suppose that if he really did find the Lost City of Z it really wouldn’t have mattered ultimately. In fact it would have be an anti-climatic because it was clearly the thing he was using to project all of his disappointments in life. There is a scene in the end with Robert Patterson, where Rob says, “I don’t think Z will be all that it’s cracked up to be when you find it.” And I felt that was the whole key to the story. In a sense it was Fawcett’s method of coping with life’s indignities. That was what stuck out to me when I first read the book.
Jones: How did the actors orient themselves within the world of this movie?
Sienna Miller: James and I first met and talked about this film, maybe seven years ago. For me specifically, it was finding a way of making my character not just the wife. It was finding depth and substance in the era. She was really struggling against the confines of a very male, chauvinistic society. Percival and Nina Fawcett’s relationship was completely unique in that they were Buddhists, and Percival was pro her being radical. The film wasn’t about her but we wanted to find substance. James and I constantly worked and explored ways of making her substantial and for her to be the sounding board of what it would be like to be left behind and experiencing that rather than just watching her go through it. This is often in the case in films and parts that I’ve played like “You’re the woman and you do your best to find depth.”
For more information about the film or to watch the full Lost City of Z press conference visit: https://www.filmlinc.org/nyff2016 /daily/watch-closing-nights-lostcity-z-press-conference/
Photos by Dean Moses