“I looked on, I thought, I reflected, I admired, in a state of stupefaction not altogether unmingled with fear!” – Jules Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth
They just don’t make them like that anymore. That’s a common phrase trotted out frequently by those reminded of some of the virtues of bygone eras and artistic movements, and yet it feels perfectly fitting when tackling James Gray’s lengthy and absorbing rumination on adventure and discovery. Spanning across decades of time, yet with a quiet patience and soft beauty, THE LOST CITY OF Z evokes moments from a multitude of classics throughout its robust runtime, including AGUIRRE: WRATH OF GOD, FITZCARRALDO, APOCALYPSE NOW, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, PATHS OF GLORY, and many others. Yet, it feels far from an imitation of its precursors, and more of a painterly composition of elements from the type of grand-scale, epic filmmaking that is rarely seen today. It’s a love letter to two epochs of the past, silently nostalgic for times of exploration and daring discoveries as well as sweeping and majestic storytelling. Gray’s sensibilities and aesthetic provide for a contemplative and engrossing, if admittedly uneven, telling of little known historical explorations to the heart of the Amazon. Even if it buckles under a shaky lead performance, it’s ultimately a success of artistic vision and quality craftsmanship throughout, building to a moving and satisfying conclusion.
Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is a young officer in the British army, and though he shows great skill in marksmanship and horsemanship, among many other areas, he is an undecorated and unadorned individual held back by a tainted family name. In 1906, he is sent for by the Royal Geographic Society in order that he may make a venture to South America in an attempt to survey the border between Bolivia and Brazil, two countries on the brink of war with one another. Fawcett is reluctant, but agrees to do so as a means of restoring his family’s standing. On his journey across the ocean, Fawcett meets Corporal Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), a man with knowledge of the rainforest who’ll accompany him on his journey. It isn’t long before they’re hiking through the breathtaking wilderness to map out the land and journey to the source of the Amazon river. Coming upon a rubber plantation in the middle of the jungle, they are warned the British government advises them to traverse no further. Still, the two continue forward, accompanied by an Amazonian scout, Tadjui, among others. After their crew is attacked by natives along the river, Tadjui admits to Fawcett there is an ancient city hidden in the heart of the forest. But it isn’t until Fawcett discovers statues and broken pieces of pottery that he truly believes an advanced society lived there, and he returns to England to rally more support in his search for the mysterious location of what he has named the Lost City of Z.
For all its richness and grandiose scope, the journey of Fawcett as a man is at the core of the narrative, a task that is carried by the less than stalwart Hunnam with a mixture of results. A native of Newcastle, England, Hunnam somehow sounds almost like a non-native performer attempting a very general and hard dialect, and his deliveries are constantly unnatural. As Fawcett in his younger years, the confidence, passion, and determination of the character seem to have led Hunnam to believe the most appropriate choice is to speak loudly and empathically at every turn. It makes one wonder why Gray would have chosen an actor so uncharismatic on which to place his film. But as Fawcett begins to age and experience more of the trials of the world, Hunnam starts to settle into a more restrained embodiment, bordering on subtlety and nuance. His shouts turn into more muted thoughts and pieces of wisdom, inhabiting the later life of the film’s subject with significantly more comfort. As his companion on many of his journeys, Pattinson is surprisingly terrific as Costin, a recovering sot whose taciturnity slowly gives way to awe and steadfast friendship. If Hunnam’s work is bombastic, Pattinson’s performance occupies the other side of the spectrum, with simplicity and humanity. With his handsome features buried beneath a great, bushy beard, he’s as unrecognizable in appearance as performance, inhabiting a character like never before. And Sienna Miller is particularly noteworthy as Fawcett’s wife, Nina, though she’s often saddled with clunkier pieces of dialogue. Nina is a victim of the times more than the screenplay, a fierce and independent woman who’s frequently separated, against her will, from those she loves, yet she soldiers on. Miller makes most every single scene of hers count, imbuing them with significant depth of feeling, and admirably brings the film to a beautiful, touching ending.
Chronicling the lengthy and vast exploits of Fawcett is a daunting venture for Gray whose previous projects have been more contained, though no less ambitious, but he rises to the challenge, displaying a knack for broad scope while never losing sight of the narrative through-line and emotional core. Fawcett’s history is littered with shifting paths and directions, but Gray superbly captures the tone of each new environment, as riveting in the cacophony of a WWI battlefield as the haunting and tantalizing silence of the jungle. Everything is plotted out and revealed with moderation and leisurely control, though it occasionally sags in some of the earlier moments while some later profound occurrences feel a tad hastened. One wishes there was more time to give all of Fawcett’s adventures the time they deserve, but Gray’s tackling of the subject is nevertheless commendable. Throughout, it is undoubtedly beautiful, as the reuniting of the director and his cinematographer from 2013’s THE IMMIGRANT, Darius Khondji, gifts the audience with more stellar compositions featuring soft, golden sumptuousness. It’s hard to capture the wilds of the rainforests and rivers following in the footsteps of greats like Werner Herzog, but Gray and Khondji’s eye and framing is understated and exquisite, remarkable in its own right. In that sense, it’s most certainly more expressive and evocative in its imagery than its characters or dialogue, and its gob-smackingly pretty and symbolic final shot speaks volumes more than any word can about the journey we’ve all undertaken.
Like the film’s pioneering protagonist, Gray is a director who embarks on artistic odysseys others may find dated, foolish, or unimportant, yet he still persists in chiseling out his own little niche that continues to draw fans and admirers. Rarely do contemporary American filmmakers undertake projects of this size and scale with an approach less reliant on spectacle and drive, and more willing to let a story breathe and evolve at its own pace. It may not compare to Scorsese’s patient masterwork from last year, SILENCE, but it still quietly beckons us to follow closely a story across a significant portion of one man’s life, penetrating the wilderness of South America in search for answers about the history of our world, and, more importantly, some truths about ourselves as human beings. In the end, perhaps the elusive City of Z is a macguffin, an unattainable goal that Fawcett and his crew constantly strive for, but their pursuit of it is what ultimately fascinates, what allows us to peer into the hearts of those who have a passion and drive for braving and embracing the unknown. Gray’s choice not to reveal the titular location to the viewer is one of welcome restraint, one that reminds us the journey has been through the mind and soul more than the physical environment, and acknowledges that there’s still some wonderful magic in that which we do not fully know. We can always search for it whenever we desire, on the screen or in our daily lives.