The Lost City of Z contains some of the most fair-minded depictions of native tribes, walking the line between noble savagery and fear-mongering, and locating them as people in a harsh setting. Fawcett's voice-over, framed organically as journal entries, this being a scientific pursuit and all, doesn't place them as angelic saviors of nature living a just life, but as people coming up with answers to the questions their environment asks them. The English environment asks different ones, and the respective answers are custom-fitted instead of superior or inferior. One tribe practices cannibalism in small doses, but the whole of Europe is on the eve of WWI, a pointless conflagration that will claim more lives over four years than have perhaps ever existed in the isolated jungles. The tribe probably has its own self-aggrandizing mythology, just like the English with their doctrinal need to incorporate a flattering racism into their history and science texts. A centerpiece scene, where Fawcett is selling another expedition to the Royal Geographical Society, is laden with fiery speeches and table-pounding as he attempts to overturn this colonialist cauldron against the harrumphs of his colleagues. If science was still debated like this, the public would likely take more interest.
The jungle sojourns, filmed hazily by Gray and expert cinematographer Darius Khondji, are as beautiful as they are suffocating. Fawcett's intensity matters little to the sometimes-hostile natives and the always-hostile environment. Gray, adapting his film from a book by David Grann, takes care to place Fawcett and his team in deteriorating circumstances, gradually taking away forward momentum until there's little choice but to turn back. His second trip, accompanied by overconfident aristocrat James Murray (Angus Macfayden), is impeded and ultimately sabotaged by the toll it takes on Murray. Murray begins the trip excited and full of optimism and gradually takes on the desperation of Matt Damon's character in Interstellar, another adventurer who bit off more than he could chew. Back in England, Murray engages in a baffling game of honor-reclamation that looks only a little less absurd than cannibalism, demonstrating again that societies generate rules and customs that look normal within and insane without.
In addition to its impressive settings and themes, The Lost City of Z is also memorable for the 180 in perception it pulls off for some of its actors. Tom Holland, showing up later as one of Fawcett's sons, and Pattinson, who very much takes a back seat to Hunnam, are previously established talents, and they maintain that reputation here. It's Miller and especially Hunnam who most surprise. With her weighted down by silly action (G.I. Joe) and useless wife characters (American Sniper), and he mired in wooden hero roles (Pacific Rim), expectations here are considerably thwarted for both. She is a credible and passionate equal partner in their marriage, weighed down by the strictures of the times. The irony of Fawcett's battle against racism but complicity in sexism is not lost on her, and Miller gives her the dignity and the intelligence to demonstrate how self-evidently wrong he is to not bring her fully into his fold. Hunnam apparently spends a lot of mental energy on accents, because when he's unfettered from altering his natural Anglo speaking voice, he is magnetic and charismatic, a true leader capable of inspiring skeptical scientific societies to bankroll him and men to follow him into imminent danger. I love Guillermo del Toro, but he was apparently too focused on his kaijus in Pacific Rim to draw a good performance out of his evidently-capable star.
The Lost City of Z doesn't have Herzog's indelible anti-heroes or spectacle, but it does share a thoughtfulness about man's place in the world. Where Herzog often returns to how flimsy man's supposed domination of nature is, Gray takes a more optimistic and humanist approach, finding the pros and cons in societies of vastly different strengths. If it only settled on demonstrating to the world that Charlie Hunnam can hold down a serious drama, The Lost City of Z would be a success, but its intelligent story and lush visuals add to a lengthy list of pro's. A little more Herzogian awe would have pushed it into the stratosphere, though as it stands, Gray makes a strong entry into a sparse but potent genre. B+