Director: James Gray. Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Sienna Miller, Robert Pattinson, Angus Macfadyen, Tom Holland, Ian McDiarmid. 15 cert, 141 mins.
Rudyard Kipling understood what made Percy Fawcett tick. In his 1898 poem The Explorer, Kipling wrote of a man spurred to adventure by a voice – not a divine, cloud-parting rumble, but a relentless inner whisper, needling him with the prospect of wonders “lost behind the Ranges”, waiting for discovery to make them real.
Fawcett heard that voice and heeded it. Born in 1867, he was an archaeologist and Colonel in the Royal Artillery, who became convinced, during a series of mapping expeditions to the Amazon, that somewhere in the jungle was a city of gold and maize – so ancient it perhaps predated western civilisation itself. The evidence was sparse and tenuous: handed-down native testimony, caches of pottery and sculpture, strange sigils carved in rock. But Fawcett couldn’t rest until he’d seen where the river led.
That journey to the river’s source – as much a voyage of the mind as a trek through real-world undergrowth – is the stuff of James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, a film as transporting, profound and staggering in its emotional power as anything I’ve seen in the cinema in years. As a piece of historical drama (it was adapted by Gray from the non-fiction book of the same name by David Grann) it’s sincere and scrupulous.
As a work of filmmaking, it’s an immediate classic, fit to stand beside the best of Werner Herzog and Stanley Kubrick – though it’s also entirely its own thing, classical to its bones yet not quite like anything that’s come before it. In earlier films like The Immigrant and We Own The Night, I’ve occasionally found Gray’s careful, level-headed style a little distancing and hard to love. After this one, I had to retrieve my soul from the ceiling with a long-handled feather duster.
Fawcett is wonderfully played by Charlie Hunnam, the heartthrobby star of the TV series Sons of Anarchy and the Guillermo del Toro films Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak. It’s a role built on complex, not-obviously-cinematic qualities like decency, honour and conviction, but Hunnam brings them to life with total persuasiveness.
The film opens with a disembodied shot of fires and drums in a jungle clearing – the secret’s already waiting for Fawcett, before he even knows he wants to find it – then moves to a British army barracks in Cork, Ireland, 1905, where he and his fellow officers are deer coursing.
The hunt sequence is a dream of pageantry – the camera scampering with the gun dogs one moment then soaring overhead the next, all to stirring bagpipe music. (The soundtrack includes a radiant, yearning score by Christopher Spelman and perfectly chosen works by Stravinsky, Ravel, Strauss, Verdi and Beethoven.)
Fawcett gets the kill, but he’s kept at arm’s length from the celebrations by his class. As one of his social betters piteously sniffs, he has been “rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors”: in other words, his father was a gambler and a drunk.
So when Ian McDiarmid’s Royal Geographical Society grandee asks Fawcett to travel to South America and resolve a land dispute between Bolivia and Brazil, he suggests the two-year quest could be a means of reclaiming his family name. Fawcett accepts, even though it means leaving behind his beloved wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and son Jack (played as a child by Tom Mulheron and Bobby Smalldridge, and later as a teenager by Tom Holland). Eternity comes before the here and now.
On the voyage to Bolivia, Fawcett meets his thickly bearded aide-de-camp Henry Costin, played by Robert Pattinson as a sort of winningly eccentric Tintin supporting character Hergé never quite got around to thinking up. There is an astonishing moment when Fawcett forces Costin to pour the contents of his hip flask down the sink – both men need to be sober and ready for the challenges ahead – and in a nod to Lawrence of Arabia’s iconic transition from blown-out match to rising desert sun, Gray cuts from the coppery trickle of brandy to a steam train pounding though the wilderness.
Though Fawcett is an arch-keeper of his cool, the jungle itself ripples with Herzogian lunacy: take the lumber-built opera house, complete with orchestra, which he and Costin find by night in a clearing, presided over by a rubber baron (Franco Nero) lounging by a trove of silverware in a tattered white morning suit. It genuinely feels like uncharted territory – and on later expeditions, old swashbuckling standbys like spear-shaking cannibals and shoals of killer piranhas feels freshly fantastical and dangerous.
It’s on his first trip that Fawcett makes the archeological discoveries which prompt his theory of the existence of the City of Z (pronounced ‘Zed’) – which, at a Royal Society summit back in London, he calls “the ultimate piece of the human puzzle.” His belief that, civilisation-wise, the British Empire might be playing catch-up with “the primitive jungle man” causes a blaze of uproar that makes Fawcett all the keener to confirm it.
From here, we watch Fawcett on further expeditions in the jungle, spending time with his family back in England, and also fighting in the trenches of the Somme. All three parts feel essential. Miller may have never been better than she is as Nina, sensationally capturing the scope and complexity of her character’s frustrations as an ambitious, capable woman who knows her destiny is to be left at home. (She gets the film’s final shot, and it’s an all-timer.)
Nina quotes that Kipling poem in a letter to her husband, for inspiration and perhaps also comfort. Later she turns to Browning’s Andrea del Sarto: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,/Or what’s a heaven for?”
The Lost City of Z isn’t straightforwardly religious, but the possibility of an afterlife of sorts is suggested in Fawcett's shifting relationship with his eldest son, which may be the most beautiful thing in the film. Late on, there’s a shot of the father standing on the prow of a low hill, watching his boy shoot rabbits. The older man, once the centre of attention, has become a small silhouette in his own story as he watches his son race into the foreground. In context, it’s one of the most acute and overpowering expressions of fatherhood on film I’ve ever seen.
Most period dramas would be content if you left the cinema able to pick out their particular place in history. The Lost City of Z asks you to contemplate your own. It’s a film that knows every life is a stretch of the same great river, whose golden source remains forever just around the bend, and out of sight.
The Lost City of Z is released in UK cinemas on Friday 24 March