The Daily Telegraph
A journey into uncharted territory
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.
Fawcett is wonderfully played by Charlie Hunnam. It’s a role built on complex qualities like decency, honour and conviction, and Hunnam brings them to life with total persuasiveness.
The film opens with a disembodied shot of fires and drums in a jungle clearing, then moves to a British army barracks in Cork, Ireland, in 1905,
where Fawcett 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.
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-decamp Henry Costin, played by Robert Pattinson as a sort of winningly eccentric Tintin supporting character that Hergé never quite got around to thinking up.
Though Fawcett is an arch-keeper of his cool, the jungle itself ripples with Herzogian lunacy. It genuinely feels like uncharted territory – and on later expeditions, old swashbuckling standbys like spear-shaking cannibals and shoals of killer piranhas feel freshly fantastical and dangerous. 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.
It’s a film that knows every life is a stretch of the same great river