The Lost City of Z

The Lost City of Z

The Lost City of Z likes to keep its politics just under its plot. Sometimes they surface in throwaway lines (“We might be too British for this jungle”), but usually they provide a necessary anti-colonial mirror to the adventure story. The film opens in a colony; Fawcett is introduced as a British Soldier in Ireland in the early 20th century, eager for glory. But the film never illuminates why he’s in Ireland to begin with—what’s unsaid is left to the viewer to contemplate.

There are some representation problems. As much as it’s eagerly anti-colonial, we can ask: why are these stories still being told? And the film’s focus on Fawcett means most of the surrounding characters are underdeveloped. There are better reviews than mine about this. Similarly, there’s plenty of praise echoing my own appreciation of the filmmaking, including Pattinson’s performance, the photography and even those divisive match-cuts.

Instead, I’d like to focus on the film’s interest in Fawcett: how it portrays him as inherently, unknowingly flawed, and as a constant source of hypocrisy. (And how this awareness, while in film of questionable politics, means it’s still a few steps above generic action/adventure films).

All of Fawcett’s actions (especially the “heroic” ones) are undermined by selfish or colonial dualities. His entire obsession has more to do with recognition than upsetting the racist ideology of his time, no matter what he says. Instead of calling them “savages” he’ll call them “natives” and pat himself on the back. And I think the film’s interested in this contradiction, because Fawcett, while rebelling against some parts of the hegemony, cannot break out of the institutions that formed him; he’s not going to give up his privileges. The scenes in England reveal this: in one, he says he only supports his wife’s rights “in mind, not in body.” In another—a bloody WWI sequence—he shows his eagerness to kill Germans and lead his own men to their death. His trips to the Amazon are funded by men who want to conquer it, but he can’t see it (or worse, maybe he doesn’t care).

And by the film’s conclusion, Fawcett’s obsession inflicts lasting trauma on his son and wife, both equally lost to the jungle. But the film’s tone never particularly condemns him, nor celebrates him. It invites sympathy and critique equally; there’s a certain classical distance that Gray invokes to make Fawcett all the more interesting.

Hunnam’s blandness even works in the film’s favour. He comes to represent a kind of liberal, white, every-man of the early 20th century, synonymous with one that might be found today: one who cannot divorce himself from privilege and the institutions which molded him. I’m glad his obsession never reaches hysteria (there’s no need for more Walter Whites, Aguirres, etc). Where those figures begin to normalize a toxic male ego—Fawcett reminds us that obsession comes in many forms: it can look less violent and be just as deadly.

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