The Lost City of Z **** / *****
Directed by: James Gray.
Written by: James Gray bases on the book by David Grann.
Starring: Charlie Hunnam (Percy Fawcett), Robert Pattinson (Henry Costin), Sienna Miller (Nina Fawcett), Tom Holland (Jack Fawcett), Edward Ashley (Arthur Manley), Angus Macfadyen (James Murray), Ian McDiarmid (Sir George Goldie), Clive Francis (Sir John Scott Keltie), Pedro Coello (Tadjui), Matthew Sunderland (Dan), Johann Myers (Willis), Aleksandar Jovanovic (Urquhart), Franco Nero (Baron De Gondoriz).
There have been a lot of people saying that James Gray’s The Lost City of Z is a throwback – the type of old fashioned epic that Hollywood just doesn’t make anymore. And to a certain extent, that is true. This is the type of film that John Ford or John Huston would have made during the Golden Years of Hollywood – an epic about European explorers, heading to Amazonia to see what they can discover in the jungle there. It is a study of manly men doing fulfilling their roles as explorers and alpha men. Yet, Gray – who doesn’t seem like a natural choice for the material at first, isn’t interested in just making a nostalgic look back. His film is set more than 100 years ago, and Gray’s film openly questions the morals of that time period in ways in which neither a Ford or Huston film would have. The film does examine colonialism, as well as racism and even sexism. Most importantly, unlike Ford or Huston, who would have unabashedly loved the “hero” of The Lost City of Z, Gray never fails to acknowledge that he is more than a little bit of an asshole. Being more enlightened than most other, white European males at the time is a far cry from being enlightened.
The film stars Charlie Hunnam as Percy Fawcett – an officer in the British army who, as one person says has a “poor choice of ancestors”. His father, who Percy did not know, has brought shame upon their name – and Percy would like nothing more than win back the family honor – preferably in combat. He doesn’t get his chance right away though – but he gets it another way. He is recruited by the Royal Geographical Society to head to South America, and map out the border between Bolivia and Brazil – the two are fighting over it (the price of rubber has made where the border lies valuable), and neither side will let the other be involved in doing the charting. Percy heads there – the first of three times he will do so in the movie – and alongside his allies, including Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) do what their job. But while in the jungle, Percy discovers remnants – pieces of pottery, that suggest that the “savages” have a society that dates back thousands of years – even pre-dating European society (the shock!). Upon returning to England, his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) discovers documents that chart the existence of a Lost City – which Percy names Z, and becomes obsessed with finding. He’ll embark on a second trip with Costin – funded by a spoiled wanker, James Murray (Angus Mcfadyen), who puts them all at risk – until WWI breaks out, and seemingly ends his dream. It’s only after the war when Percy is able to head back – this time along with his son, Jack (Tom Holland).
In many ways, The Lost City of Z is a story of obsession – Percy desperately wants to find Z, even if he can never really explain what it he expects to find there, or why it has become so important to him. The film never quite goes over to the side of madness – like say Werner Herzog’s Aguirre the Wrath of God or Firtzcarraldo or Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, three films that resemble this one, and who Gray references in this film as well. Percy’s obsession doesn’t drive him insane per se – but it does drive a wedge in his family. When the film opens, it seems like Percy and Nina have a good marriage – and a happy one, and one that is built upon mutual respect. His obsession with the Amazon, and his repeated trips there, takes him away from his family – sometimes for years at a time. His kids grow up barely knowing him, and resenting him for it. In a scene that is somewhat difficult to watch, he argues with Nina when she says she wants to join him on his trip to the Amazon – she helped him with the research after all, including finding the key document. The scene lays bare just what he thinks “equality” in a marriage looks like. Likewise, when he gives speeches about the “Savages” – he isn’t as cruel or ignorant as many of his colleagues – but that hardly makes him enlightened.
Those scenes give even the exciting scenes in the jungle a sadder undercurrent – he is going for adventure, but what is the cost of that adventure. When he heads back the third time with his son – after cruelly getting him to ask his mother for permission – he is doing it under the guise of letting his son in, but it’s really just another chance to pursue his obsession. Costin sees this – knows it too well – which is why he stays home.
Gray is an interesting filmmaker. For quite a while, he worked in some key crime dramas – Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own the Night – in which he slowly built up the worlds around his characters, which felt authentic. He moved onto something more romantic in Two Lovers, and tragic in the period piece The Immigrant. This film is not like those other ways in many ways, but is in the way he pays attention to detail, in the way he builds his worlds, and how it is impeccably crafted and beautifully hot on 35MM film, which gives the film added texture.
The Lost City of Z is indeed a throwback – an old fashioned adventure epic, the likes of which we haven’t seen in years. It is also a film though that sees through the myths that those older films whole heartedly accepted – which is what ends up being the most interesting aspect of this film.