There’s something admirable about James Gray’s filmmaking, and The Lost City of Z is the perfect summation of his old school sensibilities. Told with the personal and stubborn determination, The Lost City of Z is a decorated odyssey, told through the external and self-inflicted hell that is punishingly rich in metaphor, allegory, and ultimately defines Gray as an singular artist he truly is. Gray’s notorious biography can be projected onto the burdened Percy Fawcett (played with gritty gusto by Charlie Hunnam), who is on display a burgeoning archetype of a classical white knight. He has an intrinsic need for curiosity and the unquenchable hunger for objective. In an attempt to shed the stigma of his disgraced family name and achieve recognition, Fawcett ironically abandons his family and embarks on a hostile, yet surveying trek through the perilous Amazon (no pun intended!) and by chance, stumbles upon a secret civilization buried deep within the jungle. When relaying the awed vision of his discovery back home, Fawcett is straightaway dismissed and scrutinized. The idea of a civilization where the Amazonian can associate with white men as equals is unfortunately overlooked as a mere fantasy at best, and ill-advised at worst.
Hunnam has no choice but to remove all vanity and sink into a character as engulfing, as lead Percy Fawcett, examining the fallout of his stricken ego over years of failed expeditions. The ensemble of committed actors are also up for the task, particularly Robert Pattinson who effortlessly blends into the film as an intentional plot device, and Sienna Miller as Fawcett’s long suffering wife. Miller adds nuance and urgency into what most directors would recycle as a throwaway role of the long representative suffering wife paradigm.
Fawcett, fully aware yet unforgiving in his desires, irrationally brings emotional and physical turmoil to his colleagues and family. When pressed about what he hopes to achieve with his mission, Fawcett painstakingly replies “I don’t know.” The film proposes many interpretations and questions regarding the happiness of Fawcett and his sanity in additions to notions of materialistic recognition.
Such a story would never be easy to crossover from page to screen, and admittedly Gray has a fair share of stumbles with the rocky adaptation as evidenced by the time jumps. Time is suggested as an ultimate, undefeated foe to Fawcett, but the second half of the film is not as consistently refined and as glorious first half. It is almost as jarring on screen as in our protagonist’s state of mind. Ultimately, it is a sprawling narrative that is at times emotionally distant as the murky climate of the expeditions, but Gray wisely focuses on the cinematic experience as his North Star. His cherished decision to film on 35mm pays off exceptionally well and rewards his audience with a visual treasure. Hazy, feverishly glacial dissolves and fading scene transitions compliment Fawcett’s obsessive and deteriorating mindset. The echoing sounds of menacing jungle chirps, labored rifle booms, lingering river waves, and chatter from disgruntled and fearful of white elitists during a conference still vividly haunt my ears. Remarkable and husky lighting illuminates every pristine and antiquated frame with a practically green/yellow haze. A vintage attack of swarming arrows on a ramshackle boat recalls the very best of Herzog in his prime. Even if the polished yet standard blocking and placement of said scenes do not match the extraordinary exquisiteness of the textured cinematography, this is no less an impressive feat. [A-]