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.