One thing overlooked by so many tony period biopics of Britain is just how ridiculous and rambunctious the country’s people could be—far from the genteel, tea-sipping upper-class folk of Masterpiece Theatre episodes. The Royal Geographical Society is the toast of British high culture in 1911 when Fawcett stands up and makes his pitch to lead a new expedition back up the Amazon River. But even though his audience is dressed in black tie, they aren’t far removed from a soccer crowd, yelling and jeering at each of Fawcett’s most controversial arguments, and then stomping their feet in approval whenever he holds his own and shoots back an insulting rejoinder.
James Gray, a Russian Jew who grew up in Flushing, Queens, had until The Lost City of Z never made a film set outside the Big Apple (even his sumptuous The Immigrant is set in Manhattan in the 1920s). His movies, like The Yards or We Own the Night, are often about cops and gangsters; perhaps that understanding of his characters’ street spirit is what makes The Lost City of Z so distinct from other period pieces. Fawcett knows he doesn’t just need scientific evidence or research papers to convince the Royal Geographers (who can fund his next trip into the Amazon) of his theories. He also has to put on a confident display of male ego. This is an arena where the loudest voice wins.
As his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) looks on from the balcony (“It’s men only, I’m afraid,” she’s told when she asks to sit in the audience), Fawcett makes his case. “Amazonia is far more than the green desert which many of us had supposed,” he argues. “Perhaps it is too difficult for some of you to admit. We, who have been steeped in the bigotry of the church for so long cannot give much credence to an older civilization,” he continues to boos. “Especially one created by a race the white man has so brutally condemned to slavery and death!”
“Are you insisting that these savages are our equals? Savages in Westminster Abbey?” protests a member of the audience. “Consider my evidence,” says Fawcett, holding up archeological pottery he found in the jungle. “Pots and pans!” replies another heckler, leading the entire crowd in that chant. But Fawcett silences him, not with further evidence, but with a bossy zinger: “Settle down, children!” The scene goes on like this, with Fawcett’s charismatic roadshow eventually proving persuasive enough to get him funded.
The Lost City of Z is predominantly set in the jungle, and Gray does a magnificent job presenting how simultaneously hostile and enticing this environment is for Fawcett. But his carnival-barker speech, even if it’s for the largely noble purpose of demonstrating that civilization could exist outside the Western world, is just as crucial to the film. This movie is in part about the passage of British colonialism into near-obsolescence, covering Fawcett’s life from the turn of the century (when the whole world is his oyster) to after the First World War (a conflict depicted as a pitiless nightmare).