One of the most beautifully composed movies of the year, director James Gray’s tale of obsession and glory sticks with you.
Since man invented the wheel, the desire the travel and colonize is an unquenchable goal. Hollywood’s followed suit, charting the world through the Western all the way to Francis Ford Coppola’s epic, Apocalypse Now. Joining the pantheon of “man enters the jungle” films is James Gray’s adaptation of The Lost City of Z. Based on the popular book by David Grann, Lost City of Z is a lush and sweeping study of colonization and masculine pride.
In the early 1900s British explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) vows to prove himself by finding proof of the existence of an Amazonian tribe. Driven to the brink, Fawcett will do whatever it takes to show that he is right.
Gray is a director of unassailable talent whose work emphasizes the struggle of defining oneself in harsh circumstances, whether literal (see The Immigrant) or metaphorical. Percy Fawcett is a good man and father, but a defect in his family’s pedigree prevents him from rising any higher up the ranks. For Percy, the lack of medals and committees is a slight he can’t ignore; one that cuts to the very core of his being a man. His first foray into the Amazon is for a perfunctory fact-finding mission, causing him to stumble upon the civilization by accident. From there, Fawcett becomes motivated to do whatever he can to finance more trips. Charlie Hunnam finally finds a character that suits his brand of staunch Englishness. As the proper Fawcett, Hunnam walks the line between cold and caring, determined and mad.
At over two hours, Gray’s film juggles both Fawcett’s returns to the Amazon, his attempts to get support from various British societies, and his relationship with his wife and sons. Gray’s features have a meandering, slow-burn feel, with an emphasis on feelings and implied connections, and the lack of action beats or other attempts to retain the audiences’ attention makes Lost City of Z a film for a particular audience. This isn’t to say there aren’t moments of intensity. The group navigating the treacherous river is a white-knuckle adventure, fluidly capture by cinematographer Darius Khondji.
Gray’s thought-provoking script is what sustains the film, providing specific moments that lead to an overwhelming wash of emotions. As Fawcett becomes more consumed by his quest, it places him at odds with his wife, Nina. Brilliantly played by Sienna Miller — who gives a performance worthy of awards but which will probably be missed — Nina Fawcett is the one left to pick up the pieces. Fawcett’s right hand, always present at his speeches, a silent rage bubbles under Miller’s performance. This rage comes from knowing she’s as smart as her husband, but it is her gender that prevents her from joining on the adventure with him.
Gray’s acknowledged the male tendency to look down on women, and between this and The Immigrant he shows a flair for capturing the frustration of the female experience — one that hasn’t disappeared despite our distance from the time period. When Nina and Percy’s son Jack (Tom Holland) wants to go with his father into the jungle, he uses his mother’s logic to sway her. Nina begrudgingly agrees to let her son go, but it’s impossible not to notice that his gender makes all the difference, regardless of him stealing her voice to foster his argument.
Other moments in the jungle provide additional food for thought. A trip into the Amazon with a British representative almost sees the crew perish, a reminder to Percy that it’s a certain man who can go into the jungle and survive. As with the similar Apocalypse Now, Gray uses these moments as a deeper dive into the world of obsession, what fuels it and sustains it. When Percy returns home, he’s an outcast, unable to relate to his wife and children.
The third act truncates things that undermine this point; Jack ends up forgiving his father enough to go traveling with him a taste too easily. It’s also easy to forget Robert Pattinson is in the film, as Fawcett’s aide de camp Henry Costin. Hidden behind a bushman bird, Pattinson plays the strong, silent type to perfection. Much of his performance is conveyed through reactions, proof that the actor is more than a pretty face.
The Lost City of Z won’t please everyone nor should it. One of the year’s most beautiful films deserves your attention. James Gray creates a film mired in emotion and deep thinking rather than in revelations. The lack of revelation ends up being more frustrating to its lead than the audience.