James Gray is one hell of a filmmaker, but if you run in film circles, you probably already knew that. The director of such modern classics like We Own the Night and The Immigrant is shaping up to be one of the premier chroniclers of the 20th century in modern cinema. After all the difficulties he had making The Immigrant, many expected him to move away from the period pieces and do something different.
Yet he doubled down.
With his new film, The Lost City of Z (pronounced “zed”), Gray defies expectation once again, as he’s made a large and beautiful film full of adventure and exploration without sacrificing any of the skill that so defined his previous work. It’s a stunning blend of old and new, brilliantly acted by a surprisingly deep cast, and it’s one of the best movies you’ll see all year.
Based on David Grann’s New Yorker article-turned-bestseller, The Lost City of Z tells the story of Percy Fawcett, a Lieutenant in the English Army, who is tasked by the Royal Geographical Society to go to the Amazon and help prevent a war between several countries by mapping out the location of rubber trees. Fawcett, whose father disgraced his family’s name in the eyes of polite society, jumps at the opportunity to improve his status in life. Accompanied by a grizzled aide-de-camp (Robert Pattinson), their trek initial goes according to plan — hostile villagers and uncompromising terrain undermine them at every turn, but their courage sees them through. On one fateful day, Fawcett shares idle chatter with a native slave, who tells him of the great achievements of the civilizations that used to inhabit the area.
At first, Fawcett doesn’t believe the guide, but as their journey continues, he finds artifacts that prove to him that these civilizations existed. This evidence challenges his beliefs (and the white-centric POV of many of his contemporaries) and soon he mounts another journey to what he dubs “the lost city of Z,” to find and honor those who were previously skipped over by a prejudiced world. Along the way, his relationship with his family (Sienna Miller and Tom Holland amongst others) will be tested, and he’ll face incredible opposition- not from the native people as one might expect, but from fellow explorers. Despite all of this, Fawcett never gives up, and on his third exposition, disappears into the rainforest, never to be seen again.
Out of the overall excellent cast (Holland and Pattinson give fantastic turns), there aren’t enough superlatives to hurl at the work Charlie Hunnam does here. Despite leading turns in Sons of Anarchy and Pacific Rim, he’s never really been able to rise above the pack. Often, he portrays the generic and attractive leading man so many Hollywood movies are stacked with these days (there must exist a challenge out there where participants are forced to tell him apart from Garrett Hedlund, which is significantly harder than it sounds), but Grey gives him something completely different to play with with. In turn, Hunnam gives the performance of his career, and he’s truly fantastic at navigating what would be an almost impossible role in the hands of some of his contemporaries.
Seriously: Weaker actors would absolutely default to the kind of boisterous excitement and assholish drive that can define obsessive explorer types, and Hunnam never does that. His Percy Fawcett is a man who loves his family and wishes to redeem his name in the eyes of high society, but at no point does his increasing interest in the Amazon feel like a true betrayal of family (his son’s eventual change of heart being a big part in this), and never feels selfish enough to taint his endeavours with the stink of vanity. And as it stands, so much of this film relies on the audience’s belief in Fawcett’s change of heart away from prejudice with regards to the Amazonian civilizations and the intelligence of the people there, and Hunnam is able to sell this with a beautiful earnestness that might be the reason you keep hearing that this is a throwback to a different era of cinema.
The obvious comparisons lie in the past, to the David Lean epics and early Herzog, but there’s a truly moving streak of romance that lies in this at this film’s heart, and manifests itself outright near the end of the film, where Fawcett and his son head out on their “doomed” final expedition. Perhaps it’s Gray’s subdued and subtle script, which strips the meta-narrative of the book out of his film, and focuses deeply on making its characters relatable. Perhaps it’s the simple yet gorgeous flourishes in the editing, as editors John Axelrad and Lee Haugen give the film match cuts so satisfying to watch that they feel like puzzle pieces fitting perfectly together. Perhaps it’s assisted and cultivated by the beautiful warmth of Darius Khondji’s celluloid cinematography, endowing the river stand-ins for the Amazon with a beautiful golden haze that barely obscures the lushness of the forests, and the deep blues and greys that define his icy Europe, running from the stately meeting halls of the Royal Geographical Society in London to the grimy hellholes of No Man’s Land in the Somme.
Hell, the photography alone is enough to make you choke up, and The Lost City of Z deserves to be seen on the biggest screen you can find, preferably on 35mm itself. Obviously there’s so much more to discuss about The Lost City of Z after its general release, especially with regards to colonialism and the portrayal of native peoples — both of which are, in the opinion of this writer, handled well by the film — but alone on its virtues as a story and as a cinematic experience, it’s absolutely essential viewing.
‘The Lost City of Z’ is in select theaters now. Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.