[NOTE: This is a re-post of our review from the New York Film Festival; The Lost City of Z expands nationwide, April 21]
There’s a moment not all that long into The Lost City of Z that brings up an enigmatic, intimate element of the past, in a movie that very much pivots on the personal stakes of world history. Colonel Percy Fawcett, played with physical ingenuity and dramatic intensity by Charlie Hunnam, arrives back in England after a long stretch of keeping the peace in Ireland, a post he took after exploring Sri Lanka as a mapmaker. In a discussion that leads to his trip up the Amazon, to map an area of jungle on the border between Brazil and Bolivia, one of his senior officers (Ian McDiarmind) at the RGS speaks of Fawcett’s father. More importantly, the officer suggests that Fawcett’s work in South America could scrub out the stains of notoriety that have marked his family’s name since the days of his father, whose crimes or assumed slights against society go undivulged in the film’s narrative other than a passing mention of “the bottle.”
From the outset, this humid, deeply human movie, directed by James Gray, comes on like a classic adventure tale, one where a governmentally decorated go-getter seeks discovery, excitement, and a sterling reputation in an unknown land where his life is worth little more than a possible dinner for a hungry local tribe. And to his credit, Gray delivers that movie with all the ribbons and bows on it. On his first expedition, he loses at least two colleagues to spears and another to a swarm of ravenous piranhas. At one point, he nearly dies the same way, near-blind and underwater. Gray, who has barely left the five boroughs in his previous films, has a quick taste for the exotic, verdant environs and his elegiac, gorgeous compositions, often tinted by yellow, blue-grey, and sickly green, convey the feeling of witnessing the past without putting the action at a remove. Strung together with accents, lingo, wardrobe, political and historical discourse, and a myriad of other detail-accurate ornamental elements, Gray’s atmosphere never feels as if it’s overworking to remind you of when this all takes place, and yet both the popular and personal opinions of the time are constantly teeming in the audience’s head.
And yet, Gray’s adaptation of David Grann‘s beloved bestseller is a far quieter, more ruminative, and confidently intimate movie than all that would suggest. Quiet would not always be something you’d say as a compliment but in this case, it’s crucial. Hunnam does give Fawcett a booming soldier’s voice but it’s used with measure and his main partner in his explorations, Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), barely raises his voice above a sarcastic mumble or groan. The sounds of the world they are moving through, whether it be the domineering symphony of the jungle or the rhythmic bustle of city streets and stadiums of law. It’s immersive without demanding your attention.
It also puts more of a focus on the discussions, which begin to center more and more on the discoverer’s obsession with finding the beginnings of civilization in what he dubs the titular, hidden away realm, up the Amazon. This is the story of a true progressive in the political sense, refusing to believe that the aristocracy was the beginning and the end of all civilization, but Gray rightly sees the stubborn, vindictive, and lethally ambitious side of Fawcett as well. In fact, he highlights it. This is the story of a true progressive, but it’s also the story of a man who needed the world to know that he was better than the class label that they stamped him with the minute he came into the world. Gray has always seen the ambitions of immigrant families and the generations that they beget as both beautiful and fatal, enlightened and damned. The obsessive love that Joaquin Phoenix‘s burdened laundromat worker, Leonard, has for the hard-partying shiksa up a flight or two from him in Two Lovers is also a want to break from the traditionalism of his loving but deeply intrusive Jewish family. So, though there are spears, rafts, deadly animals, protective natives, and all other sorts of peril, Fawcett is in fact not all that dissimilar from the city boys that Gray tends towards otherwise in his oeuvre.
It’s also, like those movies, a reflection of Gray’s own struggles with being the son of immigrants and an artist in no short supply of artistic and commercial ambition. Gray’s been one of the best American filmmakers around since the 1990s, when Little Odessa and The Yards established him as the pre-eminent post-Scorsesian New York filmmaker. Even those masterworks, mind you, couldn’t clearly set the stage for Two Lovers and The Immigrant, two of the most alluring and near-confessional American films of this or any other decade. Still, Gray had intentions towards something bigger, something like a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster, which he hinted toward in the jump toward period detail in The Immigrant. The Lost City of Z is a glorious, ambitious feat of filmmaking about an even more adventurous man who lost everything to his need to prove that he’s better than their all-guiding class ranking, that they are wrong.
A character like Angus Macfadyen‘s Murray, a wealthy, Wellesian adventurer who helps fund Fawcett’s second voyage up the Amazon, after finding proof of early civilization in the form of pottery, doubles as a kind of disclosure about what it’s like to work with an overbearing producer or another production colleague. And yet, he is a well-rounded character, given Shakespearean heft in physicality and delivery by Macfadyen, as is Fawcett’s long-suffering wife, Nina, played with potent fury and humor by Sienna Miller. One of the film’s best sequences is a simple bedroom chat between Fawcett and his beloved, wherein he demands that she not follow him on his second expedition through Bolivia with Murray. As open to the idea as Fawcett is when they initially speak about it, it’s clear that even he depends, to a certain extent, on sexism and the reinforcement of gender roles. And her stunted career is only one of a few major sacrifices that the family gives to the idea of finding Z.
One would hope on the evidence of this movie, this masterpiece, that Gray would have studios lining up to back whatever his next movie might be, and its that where I think Fawcett’s mysterious end, gone missing in the Amazon with his similarly courageous son, Jack (Tom Holland), might reflect Gray’s feelings. The feeling of true purpose still seems to allude Fawcett up until the end, like a hard itch at the back of his cranium, lost in the jungle amongst tribesman that he cannot reason with. Does any endeavor to express an idea in any medium bring mental or physical sustenance? Gray remains ambivalent but not particularly hopeful through the lens of Fawcett, but as every writer you’ve ever read has written before, the journey is the thing. Gray doesn’t even give the adventure of the story untainted glory but he gives what could have been an easy-bake nostalgia trip to Hollywood classicism—a la the original Mutiny on the Bounty—into something wholly contemplative, resonantly melancholic, wise, and cuttingly personal.