Thoughts on The Lost City of Z (2016)

The adventure biopic The Lost City of Z (2016) starts off underwater, but by the end it’s breathing sweet, sweet air. Its redemption comes when we realize that the story isn’t about Amazonian exploration at all.

Rather, as pointed out by Tim Grierson, it’s about the life of Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a man who repeatedly find himself on the cusp of achieving his life’s goal, only to be thwarted repeatedly by fate in the guises of an incompetent team member, a world war, and contemporary indigenous politics. Alissa Wilkinson puts it best when she calls the film “a bittersweet lament, a wish that finite man could know the world more fully in the time he’s allotted.” Her review also highlights Fawcett’s journey from constricting British social and military conventions to exhilarating freedom deep in the Amazon, including freedom from the conventional wisdom of the anthropology of the day. The film feels slow at first because, unlike in the second half, that part of Fawcett’s life is entirely convention-bound. And Richard Brody reminds us that another seeming weakness of the film, Hunnam’s collected performance as a man obsessed, does justice to the fact that he isn’t originally obsessive but became obsessed in the course of fulfilling his original cartographical assignment. If anything of the series of events has to do with his nature, it’s the liberal mindset of his drive to show the world that there are other, older civilizations than the White man’s.

One draw of the film that goes mostly unmentioned by reviewers is Robert Pattinson’s portrayal of aide-de-camp Henry Costin; Matt Zoller Seitz notes this as “a terrific character turn by Robert Pattinson,” but what really ignites the imagination is the combination of his eminent competence in exploration with his utter lack of backstory. He is established to have “no attachments” (except for drink, quickly abandoned) and is a great shot with a pistol, yet his arc ends in marriage and family. Who is he? This film needs a spin-off sequel, pronto.

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