The true-life figure driving the transporting The Lost City of Z (15, 141 mins, ★★★★★) is Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a jobbing British Army serviceman of lowly descent who, while mapping the Bolivia-Peru border in 1906, became distracted by rumours of a mysterious city of gold – the same talk, we note, that lured Conquistadors to their doom.
For indie nearlyman James Gray, this is a bold move into Herzog-Coppola territory: an obsessed character, the leafy unknown. “Success could change your lot considerably,” quoth a Royal Geographic Society bigwig to Fawcett; as for our hero, so for his director.
The wind is certainly at their backs. Where earlier Gray ventures dealt in stasis, here an enveloping forward motion propels both protagonist and film. It’s evident right from the opening deer hunt, officers tumbling over their steeds in sweeping overhead shots as Fawcett first veers off-track.
Gray is describing a thrilling moment when the world was uncharted and ripe for the speculator – if doubtless more dangerous, too. Immersive set pieces surpass even The Revenant’s heavily digitised spectacle: you instinctively duck whenever Indian arrows start to fly.
The film is not so boysy as to overlook the pull of home comforts, represented by Sienna Miller as Fawcett’s wife Nina, expecting the couple’s second child as he first takes his leave. Gray’s elegantly structured screenplay – drawn from David Grann’s non-fiction bestseller – proposes three such expeditions, each with different motivations. Fawcett seeks at various points to reclaim a family name; escape a marital row (while, conversely, initiating a dialogue with tribesmen); then, after the horrors of the Great War, to reconnect with his now teenage son Jack (Tom Holland).
This final movement is where Gray reveals himself as a touch softer than Herzog. Yet that empathy allows him to nurture something far more recognisable than crazed extremes in his seekers. For one, he coaxes a welcome wryness from Robert Pattinson, full-bearded as Fawcett’s aide-de-camp Henry Costin, and he keeps finding ways to illustrate why people were drawn to Fawcett’s eccentric mix of scrum-half solidity and high Romantic fervour – or Hunnam’s own blend of the two, for we’re surely also discovering this ever-improving actor en route.
That’s crucial, because what The Lost City of Z ultimately seeks to reveal is the El Dorado within: our glittering dreams, and where they carry us by day. The film is specific about the hardships incurred in such deviations, while also operating on some wider-roaming, metaphorical level.
What Gray sees in Fawcett is the willingness to pursue a line as far as it goes, to see where it might lead – a pursuit that appears newly poignant as borders close and aspirations dim. Regardless of whether this is the film that wins these adventurers the audience they merit, you can’t accuse them of not going the extra mile.