The Lost City of Z takes us to the Amazon jungle in the Edwardian years, a savage wilderness of irrationality, hostility, and incandescent loathing for outsiders. It’s almost as bad as the Middlebury campus today.
I make the comparison advisedly, because this strange update on Joseph Conrad is in essence an epic of virtue-signaling. Chunks of dialogue, even entire scenes, serve no dramatic purpose except to allow the film’s journeyman writer-director, James Gray, to hoist the flag of 21st-century political correctness while waiting for us all to salute.
City of Z (pronounced, in the British manner, “Zed”) is the true-ish story of a British Army major, Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), approaching middle age, who yearns to distinguish himself in some way. His uniform, he says, or whines, is bereft of medals. Where is his glory?
It’s in the Amazon, it turns out, where the Royal Geographical Society proposes to send him to settle, via surveying, a border dispute between Bolivia and Brazil that involves competing claims to highly valued rubber resources. Fawcett envisions clearing his family name of its regrettable associations — we’re told that he made an unfortunate choice of ancestors — and returning a conquering hero in the mold of Ernest Shackleton, who together with John Murray became master of the Antarctic in 1907.
We’re only minutes into the film when Gray starts to exhibit a lack of storytelling discipline. In one early scene, Fawcett’s genteel wife (Sienna Miller) complains that her corset is too tight, adding that men “make” women wear these things. Make? Hold on there, sister: Edwardian women wore corsets for the same reason today’s women wear Spanx: Women like to look good, and surprisingly often they consider discomfort/pain/excruciation a reasonable price to pay. Later, in an especially absurd interlude, Miller’s character, who by now is the mother of two small children, pleads to be taken to the jungle with the major. There is no indication in the film that she is anything other than an ordinary Edwardian lady in a hoop skirt: No hint is given that she has any military experience, any ability to hunt or navigate or survey or even build a fire or camp out. She would, in other words, be worse than useless on such a journey — a walking piece of kidnapping bait who would most likely leave her children without a mother. Major Fawcett rightly declares her proposal ridiculous, yet Gray presents her as having the moral authority to do anything a man can do because she has done something no man has ever done — known the pain of childbirth. If that’s the standard, every mommy on earth is better suited to physically grueling exertions than every male member of the 82nd Airborne. And yet there’s a reason that when we send an army to invade a foreign sandbox, we don’t ask Anna Wintour to lead it.
The scene serves no dramatic purpose — when Fawcett rejects her, she doesn’t rebel in any way but simply goes back to being a patient wife who keeps the home fires stoked. It’s just Gray using an anachronism to plead for the audience to like him. But what Gray has in store afterward is what’s most amazing, and most 2017, about the film.
In the second half of the movie, Gray decides Fawcett is an early apostle of multiculturalism. Or as Edwardians would have put it, he goes native.
Fawcett, accompanied by an aide de camp (Robert Pattinson, erstwhile idol of the teen-vampire movies, now looking more like Dustin Hoffman in Papillon), loses interest in his surveying job and instead pursues an archaeological find. Bits of broken crockery signal an ancient lost civilization never before recognized by any white man. He convinces the RGS to back him as he becomes an explorer in the pursuit of pure knowledge, this time accompanied by Murray (Angus Macfadyen), from the Antarctic expedition. Murray proves to be another dead weight on the plot, though: He is such a miserable, whiny teammate that he forces Fawcett’s crew to cut short one expedition, and much quarrelsome litigation looms.
You will have guessed by this point in the movie that there’s a reason you haven’t heard of Fawcett unless you read the David Grann New Yorker piece and resultant book that inspired the movie. Fawcett never did inscribe his name in the history of exploration. So why make a film about his frustrations and failures? Hubris is one possible compelling answer; he’s a jungle Icarus who let himself be blinded by his own vainglory. That isn’t the picture Gray paints, though: In the second half of the movie, Gray decides Fawcett is an early apostle of multiculturalism. Or as Edwardians would have put it, he goes native. Fawcett becomes friendly to the jungle dwellers, and embittered toward the London gentlemen, as he says things like, “We’re all made of the same clay.” Maybe, but some clay makes for more pleasant company than others. If your clay is determined to hide in the bushes and send a fusillade of deadly arrows at my clay while we’re rafting down the river, I think I’d rather be back in London reading Kipling.
The later pages of the script mainly serve to afford Fawcett lots of grandstanding opportunities to, for instance, correct RGS members who call jungle inhabitants “savages.” I’ll admit I can’t delineate the precise parameters of savagery, but when I see a man clad only in a G-string who decorates his lair with human skulls and whose supper is a human body seen roasted on a spit, I feel fairly confident that we’re in the ballpark. Contra those white-privileged toffs back home, Fawcett becomes the cannibals’ most ardent cheerleader: They’re merely ingesting the spirit of the dead man, he argues. In a scene that is filmed with evocative, bordello-sensuous lighting and scored with soothing ambient music of the sort you’d hear in a spa, Gray makes it look as though it would be not a tragedy but an honor to close out one’s earthly existence as the plat du jour at the original Rainforest Café. So the lesson of the film is not “Man is cruel to man” or “A dangerous fever strikes men in the heart of darkness” or “Vanity has a price,” but the more defensive “Every culture is great, really.” Who are we to judge the snacking preferences of the average Amazonian tribesperson, Gray asks. People are people, he insists. Even people who eat other people.
— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.