NYFF review: The Lost City of Z (James Gray)

James Gray stated with his last film The Immigrant (2013) that he was harking back to an old-school sensibility, making a movie inspired by the great impressionist silent films of the United States and Germany. His films up until that point already felt like they were tending towards a classicism wholly out of fashion in Hollywood. His magnificent new film, The Lost City of Z (pronounced as the English zed rather than the American zee), is a culmination of the movement, a synthesis and crystallization of all his tendencies to deliver an honest-to-god, they-don’t-make-em-like-this-anymore, old-school Hollywood studio-era sweeping period epic. And it is a sight to behold.

With a script based on the eponymous 2009 non-fiction book by David Grann, Gray has crafted a film that could also be called your traditional Hollywood biopic of British officer and explorer Percy Fawcett, not from cradle to grave, but from youth to old age, as is the case here. Any number of films about historical figures this season, from Clint Eastwood’s Sully to Pablo Larrain’s Neruda and Jackie, perform all manner of structural hijinks, cutting back and forth across non-linear chronologies and even muddying the waters with meta-narrative implications and whatnot. Gray does nothing of the sort here, and his unadorned chronological storytelling (each flash-forward of a few years is marked by a title card) feels daring as a result of being so orthodox.

The Lost City of Z follows Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) as a young British officer, not born well apparently, but hard-working and principled, as he is assigned by the Royal Geographical Society to an expedition in Amazonia (modern-day Brazil and Bolivia) to draw maps. Thus we begin the first of the three expeditions that the film elaborately details, and it is in these sections that the filmmaking aptitude of Gray comes to the fore. The first of these expeditions also imbues in Fawcett a haunting pull of adventure, the insatiable desire to discover the titular fabled city of Z which the natives claim no white man has ever seen.

Despite having a limited budget, Gray shot on location in Colombia and it brings a real verisimilitude to the setting, with treacherous jungles and terrifying rapids that Fawcett and his team are forced to navigate. You can feel the sweat and the grime, the heat and disease, as equipment and perishable food of a century ago are towed around virgin jungles with no technology in sight. There is a genuine sense of peril to the proceedings; human life seems fragile in the overwhelming environmental detail and especially so when the explorers are attacked by the native indigenous people for besmirching their land. The recreation of the many indigenous cultures and civilizations is a triumph of production design (for comparison’s sake, David Yates’ $180M jungle picture The Legend of Tarzan was shot in a big room in London with CGI scenery, and looks far cheaper than this film).

The New York Film Festival, perhaps perversely, programmed this film a day after Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and while that film represented the latest boundary pushing advance in digital cinematography, it is still Darius Khondji’s work here, captured on film and feeling grainy and imperfect and a bit blurry, that is infinitely more transporting, cinematic and alive. Khondji, a carryover from The Immigrant, deserves accolades for making the expedition sequences of this often outdoorsy picture feel so vivid and striking.

The Lost City of Z, as it unspools, in its luxuriating 140-minute runtime (still shorter than your average ‘superheroes fighting each other’ film) moves at an unhurried, elegant, and stately pace. But when it finally arrives at its denouement, and Fawcett and his son (Tom Holland) have their most fateful encounter with an Indian tribe (who they have escaped unscathed in the past), a sense of horrifying anxiety washes over you and the stealthy emotional power of the film achieves its biggest resonance. It is then that you realize that the characters have completely engrossed you in their story, and the audience is entirely invested in the fates and destinies of these characters.

The emotional resonance in large part comes from Charlie Hunnam’s tremendous lead performance, which might surprise a lot of people. Prone to boneheaded displays of aggression and machismo on the small screen, Hunnam always had screen presence and could effortlessly project supreme physical ability and hardihood. That comes in very handy, because when you see Hunnam, whether toiling through the dense foliage of Bolivia or on the battlefield in Europe, you feel that he knows what he’s about. But added here is a sense of sharp intelligence and gravitas – the makings of a great man – and Hunnam is remarkably able to highlight the pride, masculinity, and integrity of a man who will not compromise and dreams big. His sheer bluster and bravado in front of a hall full of dissenting Royal Geographical Society members is amazing. His deep voice rings with righteousness as the society members seek to discredit him solely because he dares to suggest that an indigenous civilization predates the white man’s civilization. When he is wounded in World War I and is told he might never return to the Amazon, his breakdown and lament generate a genuine sense of pathos. And the sheer dignity he is able to project in old age is convincing and graceful. He brings alive Fawcett and makes his haunting pursuit of Z wholly palpable. This is a door-knocking performance by Hunnam and should certainly open the possibilities for juicer dramatic roles in the future.

Great direction of actors can often mean great casting and Gray amply proves that here with Hunnam, much like David Cronenberg did with Hunnam’s fellow cast member Robert Pattinson in Cosmopolis. Pattinson is also very good in a part that is perhaps shockingly a through and through character-actor part. One has to applaud the willingness of a young leading-man actor, often perceived as a heartthrob, to take on such a role. It is a real supporting role, with few lines and a part in which you might not ordinarily expect a big star. Hiding behind a huge bushy beard, Pattinson does such good understated work as a needy soldier and explorer, that many people might not recognize him.

And lastly, Sienna Miller plays an extremely crucial part in bringing to the fore Gray’s enlightened worldview. As if Gray’s impassioned defense of indigenous civilizations was not enough, he makes a valiant case of feminist independence through Miller, in the role of Fawcett’s wife. Miller fiercely plays a woman even in the 1910s as a person fully in command of her life, and the many squabbles of husband and wife as they argue over their respective roles in society have genuine sting and firepower, but Miller’s Nina Fawcett refuses to back down, and holds her own. In a note of grace, as in his youth Fawcett brutally tells his wife that her place is at home, in old age he completely defers to her and she decides the course of his future.

Gray has seemingly done the impossible here and crafted an epic that has true feeling and true spectacle, and genuine stirring passion. Always appreciated more in France than at home, Gray has said that he at one point got bitter about the cool reception of The Immigrant, and felt a bit underappreciated. One can hope that this great artist will get his due with this remarkable new film, which feels like an apotheosis of his many gifts as a filmmaker. Gray’s films always felt like they were hustling at the seams of the frames, the frame incapable of containing all the life within. Here, The Lost City of Z does feel like it has finally exploded outward from the limits of the frame, both literally and figuratively, to deliver perhaps his best ever film, and a new degree of exploration of human stories and the human experience in general.

The Lost City of Z (James Gray)