Writer-Director James Gray made a name for himself in the 90s and 00s with films so deeply-ingrained in New York City life that they never left the friendly confines of Big Apple. Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own the Night, Two Lovers, and even the director’s 2014 period piece, The Immigrant, were entirely set in NYC.
In The Lost City of Z, Gray goes so far out of his familiar wheelhouse that you’d be hard-pressed to identify it as a work by the same filmmaker. And while each of his previous movies were various shades of good, this one is easily his best.
Z tells the true-life story of Percy Fawcett, the British military officer and explorer who famously (spoiler alert?) went missing in the jungles of Brazil with his son Jack in 1925 while searching for the titular locale, an ancient civilization and Fawcett’s own version of El Dorado.
Fawcett had travelled to the location numerous times before, first as a mapmaker charting the border between Brazil and Bolivia, in-between time spent in Europe that included service in the trenches during WWI.
The remains of Fawcett and his son were never recovered despite numerous and lengthy rescue efforts, and rumors abound as to their fates. Many claim they were killed by natives, while others purport they lived out the rest of their lives in harmony with them.
Gray is not satisfied to merely chart that fateful final journey here: no, his Z breathlessly depicts more than twenty years of Fawcett’s life, beginning in Cork with wife Nina (Sienna Miller) in 1902 and suggesting a motivation for his search for greatness. As one character puts it early in the film, despite his accomplishments, he had “chosen the wrong ancestors.”
Fawcett is rousingly portrayed here by Charlie Hunnam in a career-best performance. Hunnam has been around in leading-man roles for awhile now – on TV in Sons of Anarchy and in films like Pacific Rim and the upcoming King Arthur – but here is a commanding presence that takes total control of the character.
Given his mapmaking background, Fawcett is recruited by the Royal Geographical Society to travel to South America: border tensions between Bolivia and Brazil have led to potential conflict, and an independent body is needed to resolve them.
In the jungle, Fawcett is joined by a small team that includes British corporals Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), and Arthur Morley (Edward Ashley). On a makeshift raft, they travel down the seemingly never-ending river that separates the two countries in search of its tributary, the agreed-upon distinction between the two nations, while avoiding hazards that include the local wildlife and hostile natives.
But when they become the first white men ever to step that deep into the jungle, Fawcett discovers remnants of an ancient civilization equal to those in Europe and Asia, and a lifelong obsession is born.
Pattinson, by the way – almost unrecognizable under a heavy beard – is excellent as Fawcett’s right hand man who accompanies him on future journeys. Cast against type, he brings a great deal of character into a quietly moving role.
The rest of the film charts Fawcett’s journey in both literal and allegorical senses. He travels between London, where he fathers three children and serves in the military during war, and back to the jungle during numerous expeditions, including an ill-fated trip with fellow explorer James Murray (Angus Macfadyen) and that final one with his eldest son Jack (Tom Holland). But his obsession with finding that lost city takes him to some unexpected places spiritually, as well.
The portrait of a man obsessed is never an easy one, and most versions of this story, for which Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness might serve as a template, depict a slow journey into madness that end in tragedy.
But writer-director Gray has great reverence for his central character, treating him not as a man obsessed but one who dares to unflinchingly step leap into his own destiny, whatever the consequences. The result is something both cathartic, and even oddly inspirational.
Shot by Darius Khondji (Se7en, Midnight in Paris) throughout locations as diverse as Amazonian jungles, Irish meadows, and WWI battlefields, this is a gorgeous-looking film that demands to be seen on the big screen (if you’re quick enough to catch it).
The Lost City of Z explicitly recalls two great films from Werner Herzog: Aguirre, the Wrath of God, which depicted a Spanish explorer’s descent into madness as he searches for El Dorado, and Fitzcarraldo, where a similar madness brought the opera to the Amazon (an early scene here even briefly depicts an opera performance in a jungle town).
Those are two of the best films of all time. And while Gray doesn’t quite equal Herzog here, he comes awfully close.