Director James Gray makes films that feel as if they were made in another era, the rare cinematic classicist whose films stand equal with their bygone influences. His appropriation of classic cinema style, from the early days of silent cinema to the more formally ambitious techniques pioneered in the seventies New Hollywood era, has frequently made him feel like a director out of time- a filmmaker solely committed to creating the type of movie “they don’t make anymore”.
Most impressively, he manages to be indebted to these influences in a manner that feels entirely unpretentious- although this sincerity has led to some derisory responses (The Immigrant was never even released in the UK due to widespread negative responses by British critics after its Cannes premiere), even as each successive release further justifies his auteur status. With The Lost City of Z, he has yet again earnestly shown an inspiration for a form of storytelling increasingly falling out of favor with contemporary filmmakers- in this case, he has made a continent and decade spanning epic worthy of comparison to the works of David Lean. Armed with the breathtaking cinematography of Darius Khondji, it is irresistible cinema so divorced from current trends it immediately feels like a timeless classic in the making, perfectly capturing the spirit of a true life mystery that fascinates to this very day.
Charlie Hunnam stars as Percy Fawcett, a well respected army major who feels inferior to his peers- he has served in multiple nations, yet has never been awarded a medal. In 1906, he was asked to lead an expedition to South America as an unbiased party to map a previously uncharted region on the border of Brazil and Bolivia. He reluctantly accepts, partnering with a drunkard aide-de-camp (Robert Pattinson), but after being told to abandon the mission almost immediately upon arrival, continues to delve deeper into unchartered territory- where he finds artifacts that suggest a hidden, or long forgotten, civilization with a culture as rich as his own. Ostracized by the scientific community, who refuse to believe the aboriginal “savages” could be responsible for these findings, Fawcett makes repeated trips back over the course of two decades in order to find concrete proof of the existence of the mysterious city of “Z” (pronounced zed), all while his family grows older thousands of miles away.
Gray has always been an ambitious filmmaker, fitting personal stories on to an expansive canvas that aims to accurately recreate the period setting. The Lost City of Z may be his crowning achievement in that regard; even though we are watching characters grow over the course of 20 years, with a World War and the challenging of societal attitudes playing out firmly in the background, the character growth feels genuine and unforced, even with the noted passage of time. This is largely due to the strength of the two central characterizations, as Gray’s screenplay portrays Fawcett as undeniably flawed- putting the thrill of discovering uncharted land above being a father figure to the three children who largely grow up without his presence. He is a loving father, but frequently puts what he perceives as his duty above what should be an instinctual duty to raise his family.
This may sound like damning with faint praise, but Charlie Hunnam delivers a career-best performance portraying this character, even though in the film’s most striking moments, all the actors are merely puppets in the centre of a larger canvas. From an early montage of Hunnam and Pattinson (whose performance initially feels like Tintin’s Captain Haddock reimagined by Ingmar Bergman) trekking across mountains, to facing-off against cannibal tribes armed with arrows, the strong ensemble cast always feel secondary to the stunning vistas they are engulfed within. Even in the sequences set in London, the period detail is stunning- not least because they have been lovingly and painstakingly created on a soundstage in Belfast. In terms of aesthetics, from cinematography to production design, this would ideally be a “clean sweep” next awards season.
However, that doesn’t mean the characters aren’t interesting and their narratives emotionally involving- it is hard not to get swept up in the passion Hunnam conveys as Fawcett pleads his case to the scientific community. The film is remarkable due to how moving it remains, even though the actions of those in the film are designed to be called in to question. The only element refraining The Lost City of Z from being heralded as a masterpiece is the characterization of Nina Fawcett, the protagonist’s wife who is amiably played by Sienna Miller. Like many of her recent performances, Miller manages to be a terrific screen presence, even though she has been saddled with a thankless task- playing a character who is defined as simply being the protagonist’s wife, but make her feel more layered than what the screenplay would suggest. Gray has admirably attempted to make her a likable feminist presence in an otherwise male dominated movie, a surrogate character to call out the flaws in the pre-suffragette era. Miller does the best with the material she’s been given, but Gray never manages to find a way to comfortably fit her in to the story as a whole- it is to his credit that he didn’t want to make a film dominated by male characters and wants the audience to challenge the concept of a film driven only by men, but the true life tale he is adapting doesn’t require this addition.
Although it has flaws, The Lost City of Z will surely be heralded as one of the finest films of our current era by future cinephiles, due to how it is such a loving throwback to the epics of bygone eras. With the gorgeous cinematography and decades spanning storyline, Gray has created an arthouse event movie, designed to be seen on the biggest screen possible- make sure you don’t lose out on this Lost City.