The shadow of Don Quixote looms large over the 400 years of fiction in its wake, endowing the great men of the page, stage, and screen with that impossible dream in which to found their worth. From this tradition, we’ve gotten characters like The Lost City of Z‘s Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), the turn-of-the-20th century British Army’s equivalent of a middle management milquetoast who vies for bigger and better things. While on an especially non-glorious mapping expedition up the Amazon River, Percy glimpses his unreachable star: hints of an ancient city buried deep in the jungles of Brazil, yet undiscovered by mankind.
…Scratch that—yet undiscovered by white people, a qualifier that even the contemporaneously progressive Percy seems willing to brush under the rug. It is by virtue alone of the aid and knowledge of an enslaved tribesman that Percy is even made aware of the lost city to whose conquest he thereafter becomes irreparably bound.
Thus ensues the duality of stories inherent to Percy’s quest to follow that star. After earning the endorsement of the powers that be back home (who, though impelled to scoff at the possibility of a so-called savage race beating the Brits to the punch of advanced civilization, are hardly a tough sell on seeing one of their own lay claim to the majesty of such a potential discovery*), Percy and his chosen crewmen set off on a bushland adventure that is as visually enchanting as it is ceaselessly eerie. The most prominent fixture of the team is Robert Pattinson, who mines more than his share of charm out of less than his share of dialogue as Percy’s navigator Mr. Costin, a wry and somewhat cavalier foil to the self-serious soldier.
But then there’s the other side of the narrative. The deeper Percy travails into the bottomless pit of his journey, the more of the world outside of it fades to black. We see this most vividly in Percy’s wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and son Jack (Tom Holland), whose early dissent from the patriarch’s exclusive obsession are themselves swallowed up into the establishment of masculine grandeur that he comes to embody.
In weaving these two pieces together, The Lost City of Z becomes a tour de force in holding Golden Age cinema up to the standards of modern psychology. No excitement is expensed from the film’s rejection of the lionization that has historically been afforded to men and missions like Percy and his. Every moment spent silently skulking through the South American wilderness is soaked in unsettling tension; every reckoning with strange and dangerous worlds deep inside that jungle is like a bona fide adventure of the viewer’s own.
But these majesties never forgive Percy, his world, or the novels, plays, and films that have heralded his society their transgressions. Though enthralled by his choices, we are all the more pained and infuriated by them, over and over again. Still, The Lost City of Z does understand its so-called hero, and those who’ve paved the way for the heroism he’ll forever be celebrated for. But it refuses to get caught up in that tradition, capping Percy’s story not with an exclamation point, but with an asterisk.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Featured Image: Amazon Studios/Bleecker Street
Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor of Nerdist. Find him on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter.