The Lost City of Z concerns the real-life explorer Percy Fawcett (played here by Charlie Hunham) and his ventures into the Amazonian jungles over a 20-year period in search of an ancient civilization he calls Zed. The jungle is a highly dangerous place, rife with snakes, disease, and violent savages, and yet Fawcett continues to go back (in real life he made a total of 8 expeditions; in the film Gray chronicles three of them). What do these expeditions mean for Fawcett?
Hunham plays Fawcett as a seriously composed and dignified gentleman, his words always perfectly enunciated, his actions organized, his judgment appearing sound. But such a surface only masks the storm that swells up inside him, the uncertainty and confusion and need for independence that propels him into the unknown.
But Fawcett’s not quite the radical progressive he makes himself to be, either. Nina, a scholar of the ancient civilizations her husband is seeking, asks him if she can accompany him on his next adventure. His response suggests he’s actually caught between tradition and progress: “It’s not a place at all for a woman. Men and women have performed their roles since the beginning of time!” Fawcett demands that his wife keep the family as a structured unit without considering that his absences are breaking it apart.
And this brings us to the crucial second excursion, where Fawcett returns to the jungle again with Costin as well as a renowned biologist, James Murray (Angus Macfayden). When the arrow pierces through his bible and Fawcett gets flashes of his home and family, he’s essentially experiencing an epiphany.
“We know so little of this world,” Fawcett tells his son. “But you and I have made a journey that other men cannot even imagine. And this has given understanding to our hearts.” In this moment of reckoning perhaps Fawcett is making a final attempt to justify his actions. He is not wrong in doing so, but his conclusion is false. He has not found his city. He recollects a moment after his son’s birth when his wife reads a letter she has written him, and finishes with a quote from a Browning poem: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” I find this a deeply moving notion, and it does seem to provide Fawcett with a sense of closure. Yet he finds this, again, through a memory of home, where he ought to be but cannot be.
There’s undeniably something skewed and tragic about Fawcett’s perspective. He does not know what he wants, and the journey for Z is his way of finding that. His pursuit is sustenance for his soul, and it becomes beguiling and maddening. The viewer sees it lucidly, while Fawcett oscillates between moments of clarity and confusion. The further one gets from home, the stronger our need to return to it. When we manage to get back to it, we lose sight of its importance and leave it again. As long as we can keep returning to it, we shall be okay. For Fawcett, he made one too many trips to Amazonia.