The Lost City of Z: spoiler-free review

Edwardian explorer Percy Fawcett was a fearless, brilliant cartographer who was prepared to head repeatedly into the then-unknown jungles of South America. So respected was he for his honesty and supererogation that he was called in to establish the borders between nations so as to prevent wars from breaking out.

Aided by other superhumanly dedicated companions like Henry Costin, Fawcett experienced all sorts of horrors in the form of insects and disease as his group made their tortuous way inland. However, one thing that they rarely feared was the indigenous people of the Amazon.

Fawcett was no believer in the ‘white man’s burden’. He admired and respected the ‘Indians’ at a time when other Europeans were enslaving them or simply murdering them to make way for rubber plantations in the rain forest. Fawcett never fired on these tribes when making first contact, but faced a hail of arrows with a cool indifference that astonished even his travelling companions.

Alas, his fascination with the peoples of the forest led to his undoing. Finding evidence of an ancient civilisation, Fawcett became convinced that a great lost city lay somewhere in the jungle, which he named Z. The last decades of his life became a fanatical obsession to find it.

Death, suffering, tropical disease, scared and threatening tribespeople, there is a great story here but the film The Lost City of Z fails to tell it. It’s more like a slowed-down remake of Apocalypse Now, told with the old-fashioned pacing of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (remember that wedding scene that goes on forever?).

The pace never picks up. Even when the explorers reach the jungle, we get very little sense of how this ‘green hell’ is alive with biting, flying, crawling insects. The best they can manage is a lone snake shuffling about by the explorers’ feet as if it too is slightly embarrassed to have a cameo in such a dull picture.

Charlie Hunnam as Fawcett singularly fails to give us any sense of a man possessed, although Sienna Miller is convincing as his long-suffering wife Nina, left alone for years while her husband lived out his fantasies. Robert Pattinson is much better as the lively Costin and has many of the best moments in the film, showing that he has finally shaken off the typecasting that came with being the star of the Twilight saga.

Much as I dearly wanted to love this movie, it was a very average picture, which will be disappointing for fans of Fawcett (like myself) while being just about bearable for those who know nothing about him. Perhaps its greatest legacy will be in bringing more readers to the David Grann book on which the film is based. Now that is a classic.

9 responses to “The Lost City of Z: spoiler-free review

    • It could well be, Max. I also think that it was a mistake that the director and the screenwriter were the same person. Where’s the quality control of the script if the director wrote it? Some people can get away with doing both, like Quentin Tarantino, but I don’t think director James Gray made the right decision in taking on both roles on this occasion.

  1. Good review. There has been so much hype about the movie that it felt forced. As if, advertise it enough and people will believe anyway. But every time I saw a trailer, I could only see ‘Sons of Anarchy’. I liked Charlie Hunnam in ‘Pacific Rim’ (which I watched because I have a secret passion for Max Martini) and thought Charlie might break free of ‘Sons’ typecasting. But I don’t think this movie will reach that goal. After your review here, I’m going to read the book instead.

    • I hope you enjoy the book, Lisa. It challenges all our preconceptions about what an Edwardian explorer was like. Then it’s probably watching the film on TV or something just to see where they all went wrong!

  2. I loved Grann’s book and a while back picked up two copies of Fawcett’s journals, now spread to far ends of the earth so I am not able to read them. It is a shame the film is a let down but at least Fawcett got a cameo in Tintin.

    • I had no idea that they had published Fawcett’s journals. Only you would know that, as the bibliophile supreme! It does seem rather apt that your copies are scattered over the earth, which feels rather in the spirit of the man himself.

      • I found them at the local second hand bookshop, they were printed a while back (although I forget when, now) and I always meant to go and read them, although that seems highly unlikely now…I will come across another copy one day I am sure. The discovery will feel as monumental as Fawcett’s.