Aidan Monaghan / Amazon Studios/Bleecker Street
Early on in “The Lost City of Z,” a lavishly shaded and haunting account of British adventurer Percy Fawcett’s repeated trips to the jungles of the Amazon in the early 1900s, the exploration team hears the swelling sounds of drums and a truncated orchestra out in the bush. After trekking alone for days, Fawcett (played by an achingly excellent Charlie Hunnam) and his gravelly aide-de-camp Henry Costin (a bearded and equally excellent Robert Pattinson) are greeted by a vested ticket taker, welcoming them to a torch-lit operahouse set up by the local rubber baron.
Fawcett and Costin are beholden to this baron during their trip, their first of several through the Amazon, initially acting as surveyors solving a border dispute and later as explorers searching for artifacts of lost civilizations that may be hidden deep in the jungle. The baron, a bearded man dripping with a constant malarial fever that he seems to be successfully ignoring as he sits in his thatch palace, agrees to furnish the two with supplies and guides for their journey upriver — as long as, he says, nothing changes. As long as the border dispute is peacefully resolved and war is averted, as long as his jungle opera stays open, as long as he and his company continue to make money on the backs of the forest and its people. Fawcett, after a moment’s pause, agrees.
Based on the 2009 book of the same name by New Yorker writer David Grann, “The Lost City of Z” is a movie about venturing off to discover the unknown and the various prices of admission such an adventure requires. For Fawcett, a trip that begins as attempt to restore a family reputation tarnished by his father slowly morphs into something more in the jungle, a hook set deeper than wanderlust. His desire for fame and recognition melds with a genuine enthrallment with the tribes and potential for uncovering knowledge and civilizations lost among the trees of the Amazon.
Over the years after his first trip, Fawcett decries the narrow-mindedness of the British geological society he belongs to with their dismissal that civilization could have ever flourished in a place so far removed from Europe’s own ancient world. (The word “savages” is thrown around liberally during meetings.) And when he hears stories of American adventurers inspired by his early adventures now entering the forest with hundreds of armed men, he has genuine concern of the damage that could be done to the people of the jungle by the encroaching Western forces.
Yet as with accepting the rubber baron’s aid on that first voyage, his exploration time and again proves more aligned with his own ends of exploration and finding deeper meaning (whatever form that may take) than preserving the culture of the amazonian tribes he comes into contact with. The relationships he forms — and the family he leaves behind in England, his wife and three children — are vehicles to use in his obsessive search.
Exploration and adventure have been on my mind a lot lately. In a few weeks, I’ll be stopping this column to start a two-year term as a Peace Corps volunteer out in the Pacific islands. I’ve done as much preparing as I think I can without falling over too deeply into obsession. Hunnam’s Fawcett is a character so completely given to his desire to explore that it dampens the color of every other backdrop of life he walks through. I’ve still no idea of what new fires the coming years will set under me; here’s hoping I fare better than Fawcett.
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