Review: The Lost City of Z (2017)

Critics and admirers like to compare James Gray to the New Hollywood auteurs, but he bears as much comparison to great 19th and early 20th century authors like Herman Melville and Edith Wharton. His films share the same mixture of sociological examination and allegory as those writers’ works. His most recent film, The Lost City of Z, solidifies Gray’s place within the classical modes of storytelling exemplified by these novelists and filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola. It’s a beguiling film, trading on conventions of the adventure film and period piece even if it expands those conventions into something more mysterious. The Lost City of Z will not enthrall those moviegoers who demand explanation at all turns of a narrative, but for those who can shift to a film’s peculiar rhythms, it is majestic.

The Lost City of Z recounts Major Percy Fawcett’s (Charlie Hunnam) expeditions in Amazonia during the early years of the 20th century. As depicted in the film, Percy Fawcett is an impeccable soldier and gentlemen who “was rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors.” This means that although he has aristocratic heritage and exceeds at his endeavours, he is an outcast in society. Tasked by the Royal Geographic Society with mapping the unknown borders of Bolivia, Percy grasps onto this survey mission as a chance to reclaim his family’s honour and enter the upper echelons of society. However, he is too eager in his expedition and too zealous about what he finds there.

Traveling through the Amazon Jungle accompanied by an aide-de-camp, Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson doing solid character work), and a later, an Indigenous slave, Tadjui (Pedro Coello), Percy finds pottery and hieroglyphs deep in the jungle. Inspired by Tadjui’s stories, Percy becomes convinced that there is a lost city in the Amazon that he dubs “Z” (pronounced “Zed”). When Percy returns to Britain, he’s lauded by some, but his new assertions that an advanced civilization exists deep in the Amazon squanders that newfound respect and sends him back to South America to prove his hypotheses.

The Lost City of Z is about mythmaking and obsession as much as it is about class, but don’t expect this film to reflect the florid obsession of a Stanley Kubrick film, or even the concentrated puzzle-making of Christopher Nolan’s work. Gray operates to his own deliberate rhythms and while The Lost City of Z achieves moments of enormous emotional power, its primary goal is not to overwhelm the viewer with sentiment. Instead, he uses the broad strokes of Percy Fawcett’s biography to explore humanity’s mythical, even transcendent quest to achieve meaning and the tragic consequences that has on the domestic life. Percy is a man who wants to achieve greatness and change the world, but he also wants to be with his family, and those two desires cannot accommodate each other.

Of course, Gray also explores the exotic (and troublesome) fascination Europeans have with Indigenous peoples, and the relationship between civilization and chaos, here represented by the jungle. James Gray depicts the jungle as overwhelming, dangerous, but also beautiful—it’s lodged somewhere between the “collective murder” of Werner Herzog and the transcendent garden of Terrence Malick. While half the film takes place back in England and Ireland, whenever the story moves to the Amazon, Gray’s camera comes alive.

This is a beautiful film. Whether he’s capturing the enormity of the jungle or conversations by lamplight in Edwardian mansions, Gray and cinematographer Darius Khondji conjure up some gorgeous images that are reminiscent of Rembrandt paintings in their use of light and shadow. Even the moments of violence are beautiful. There’s a shot of a man falling into the Amazon and getting tangled in a net as piranhas attack that diffuses light is a way you almost never see in cinema. It makes a shot that could have easily been a Jaws homage into something more mysterious and evocative.

There are a many shots here that are rapturous for cinephiles or formalists. Two specific examples involve trains. One is a match-cut referencing Lawrence of Arabia, cutting from a shot of alcohol spilling across a surface to a train moving in the same direction. The other is when Percy goes on his second expedition, leaving his wife behind against her objections (she wants to accompany him). Gray cuts between a dolly pan looking out of the train window as it passes an empty station and shots of Percy’s wife and children home, dollying away from them in bed, as if Percy is seeing his family out the window. Both moments are staged in singular ways that no other contemporary filmmaker would conceive of or could accomplish.

Of course, the film’s beauty wouldn’t be enough to carry the film if the central character wasn’t interesting. Luckily, Charlie Hunnam rises to the occasion and is nothing less than marvellous as Percy Fawcett. Charlie Hunnam is never an actor I cared for much. Even in Pacific Rim, a film I adore, I found him wooden. However, he’s something of a revelation here and I’m now questioning my reactions to him in the past.

As Percy Fawcett, he uses what I’ve always assumed was lack-of-emotional depth to craft one of the most deliberate, restrained characters I’ve seen in recent years. The way that Hunnam deliberates over each word, expertly enunciating and parsing them out slowly while trying to contain his extreme excitement, is fascinating to watch. He embodies a man who is constantly battling his own passion in order to make proper appearances. He even plays well as an aging man in the later moments of the film, aided by excellent makeup work to grey his hair and moustache and exaggerate the wrinkles on his face.

Hunnam’s passionate restraint and Gray’s classical instincts as a storyteller combine to powerful effect by the film’s end. As Percy returns to the jungle one last time, you’d expect the film to explode with either violence or tragedy as befits a film about jungle obsession. Instead, what we get is bewildering transcendence, supplied by a long panning shot through the jungle at night, lit by torchlight, and Hunnam’s calm, almost monastic acceptance of his fate. When we then return to Great Britain and follow his wife, Nina (an excellent Sienna Miller), operating in his absence, the film only deepens in its tensions between family and duty, the domestic and the wild.

This is a great film and the final shot solidifies its strange power by merging its opposing threads together into one single frame. As to why it’s so haunting, I cannot fully explain. But I know that further viewings will bear even more rewards.

9 out of 10

The Lost City of Z (2017, USA)

Written for the screen and directed by James Gray; based on the book by David Grann; starring Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland, Angus Macfadyen, Ian McDiarmid, Franco Nero.