The Lost City Of Z

In 1925, Percy Fawcett ventured into the Amazon in search of a myth. What he discovered became legendary.

Born in 1867, Percy Fawcett 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 civilization itself. Fawcett's 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.

Poster for The Lost City Of ZAs a piece of historical drama, 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. 

Fawcett is wonderfully played by Charlie Hunnam. 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, with a radiant, yearning score 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 sniffs, he has been ‘rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors’: in other words, his father was a gambler and a drunk.

So when a 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.

It’s on his first trip that Fawcett makes the archeological discoveries which prompt his theory of the existence of the City of Z – which, at a Royal Society summit back in London, he calls ‘the ultimate piece of the human puzzle’. His belief that, civilization-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 her character’s frustrations as an ambitious, capable woman who knows her destiny is to be left at home.

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.

– Robbie Collin, The Daily Telegraph