James Gray’s classy jungle adventure owes more to David Lean than to Werner Herzog.
To dream. To seek the unknown. To look for what is beautiful is its own reward.
The Lost City of Z would be insanely profitable in any other era, hailed as a masterwork of tactile wonder filmed under arduous circumstances. We take for granted in this age of CG-aided glut how difficult it is for a filmmaker to create something that truly transports, showing us something we haven’t seen before while making it look as effortless as breathing. A degree of difficulty so high you can’t even analyze it in the moment, as the images wash over you and sweep you away.
David Lean famously asked his cast and crew to endure the brutality of the desert for Lawrence of Arabia, and the result was an almost casual majesty. Of course he placed his camera on top of that distant sand dune; of course Omar Sharif rode that camel a thousand yards towards the well; of course the battle scenes are populated with hundreds of extras and horses. Why wouldn’t they be? It’s what the story deserved.
There are plenty of other examples, of course. I think of Werner Herzog, who made a pair of jungle epics in 1972’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo a decade later, where the tumultuous conditions had him plotting to murder the films’ star Klaus Kinski, but they delivered masterpieces all the same. Francis Ford Coppola and half of his team were coked out of their minds on the remote sets of Apocalypse Now, one of the greatest near-disasters in cinema history. Peter Jackson utilized the grand vistas of New Zealand to full effect, and the country is now inseparable from Middle-Earth. Even Leonardo DiCaprio dove into a frozen river once and got an Oscar for it. There are still directors striving for authenticity, and they are to be applauded even when the stories they’re telling don’t live up to the efforts they take to tell them, or those efforts become part of a larger meta-argument about “who suffered more for their art.”
But The Lost City of Z, based on author David Grann’s riveting 2008 account of his own attempt to retrace Fawcett’s steps, has more in common with Arabia than any of those others. That comes down to style as well as their protagonists: both stiff-upper-lipped Englishmen who think ahead of their time and obsessively put themselves at risk to validate their ideas. Like Lean, writer/director James Gray (The Immigrant) doesn’t showboat with his camera or do anything that takes you out of the moment; Z is a work of both profound seriousness and studied curiosity. I didn’t think of the villages depicted as sets. I accepted their reality without a second thought because Gray never gives a reason not to. The jungle is evocative enough without his help, and every actor on screen is so naturalistic you’re not thinking about Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy) and Robert Pattinson seizing their chances to finally shine in a prestige project. If you’re Gray, you’d think all you have to do is place your camera in one incredible location after another and just let them play the scene. But if it were truly that easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing at all.
That’s certainly the perspective of Percy Fawcett (Hunnam), regarded for a century now as Britain’s greatest modern-day explorer. Over the course of two decades he led several expeditions into the heart of the Amazonian rain forest in search of what he called the “City of Z” (or Zed) — proof that these “Indian savages” were every bit as sophisticated as their counterparts in Mesopotamia or China. That, in the early 20th century at least, makes him more enlightened than most at the Royal Geographic Society, which today is best-known for their arbitrary boundary drawing in the Middle East, but in Fawcett’s time was also funding scientific adventures into uncharted territories.
His first visit in 1906, however, was more profit-minded, as it was in the declining empire’s interests to preserve the rubber trade by setting a “neutral” line between Brazil and Bolivia. Fawcett, eager to advance and redeem his family name, does his job, taking on a crew of locals, adventurous drifters, and his loyal aide-de-camp Mr. Costin (Pattinson); all endure jungle heat, disease, piranhas, and arrow-slinging natives. But when Fawcett eventually returns to his wife Nina (Sienna Miller, never better) and young son, he’s carrying not just some shards of pottery, but a new fixation smoldering in his heart.
A map of the world without edges could contain just about anything, and South America was one of the last left (it still is, to some degree). Fawcett is driven as much by the prospect of personal glory as of showing up his pigheaded countrymen who see the native tribes as less than human. He’s not advocating for the mythical, golden “El Dorado,” but the remains of any city at all would irrevocably change the story of western civilization. Eventually, his theories would be proven right, and his later journeys would be chronicled in real time by a fawning British and American press. But in 1925, at the age of 57, he disappeared. To this day no one is completely sure what happened to him, and Gray’s film leaves it teasingly vague, but Fawcett’s story has continued to captivate, raising his stature to the level of myth — the hero of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, written in 1912, was a clear Fawcett analogue. He was also a partial inspiration for Indiana Jones, though trading Fawcett’s upright bearing and moral certainty for wisecracks and a whip.
To that end, The Lost City of Z is definitively not a rousing action-adventure, but a character drama about obsession. Gray doesn’t depict sequences of derring-do but of slow trudging through hostile territory, where Fawcett’s faith in himself is the only guiding light. That classicist style extends to the jaw-dropping cinematography of Darius Khondji, lensing Z on 35mm film filtered through earth tones, reminiscent of Vilmos Zsigmond’s work on McCabe & Mrs. Miller. (Be advised, however, that your local theater’s projector is probably showing the film too dark, as confirmed when I revisited Z’s trailer this morning.) There is romanticism in the visuals, but the writing is strikingly forward-looking, even as it streamlines Fawcett’s life considerably — cutting his eight expeditions down to three, strangely abbreviating his initial discovery, and shoe-horning in a World War I interlude that feels like cutting to an entirely different film. But Gray’s screenplay also sands down Fawcett’s more traditionalist edges without losing the core of what makes him tick, or elevating his ideas unrealistically. The real Fawcett was still somewhat patronizing towards the natives he befriended, but there’s no denying that was an improvement over the default approach of “shoot first.”
It helps that Hunnam is excellent in the part, exuding quiet command throughout the film’s 140 minutes with flashes of Daniel Day-Lewis intensity. Pattinson and Miller are equally great, the former nearly unrecognizable underneath facial hair and sunburnt makeup, and the latter with perhaps the most difficult role as the soldier’s wife on the intellectual forefront of the feminist movement. It’s Nina who discovers the Portuguese letter in an archive that illuminates her husband’s theory, and sees Fawcett’s destiny as clearly as he does. The only conflict depicted between the pair comes when he refuses to let her accompany him on an expedition, and it’s wrenching because both arguments contain elements of truth, though we begin to see how so much time spent away from his family has begun to warp Fawcett’s perspective. Angus Macfadyen and Tom Holland (your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man) also excel in smaller roles, each fleshing out their characters’ disparate definitions of manhood.
It’s fruitless to talk about a film’s Oscar chances in April, but it’s noteworthy that this is the latest contender co-produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B, already twice-triumphant in its short history for 12 Years a Slave and this year with Moonlight. (Pitt himself was originally set to star, but dropped out in favor of an actual Englishman — Benedict Cumberbatch, who also had to drop out. No matter. Hunnam’s terrific.) Lost City of Z is the kind of arty throwback that could do really well come awards season, and benefits from its messages on preservation over exploitation, and seeing all humankind as “made from the same clay.” Fawcett is convinced that the journey is equal in value to the destination, and expanding one’s view of the world — even if you never get to share it — is prize enough. We’ll never know for sure whether his reach ultimately exceeded his grasp. But from the film’s hazy opening to its hypnotic ending, we’re fortunate that Gray’s didn’t.