There aren’t many directors working today with the same ambition and exquisite craftsmanship of James Gray. Despite being renowned for his complex, emotional storytelling, he continues to work within the fringes of the industry. His latest offering The Lost City of Z, a revisionist epic about colonial exploration in the Amazon, is hopefully the film to buck that trend. Based on David Grann’s 2009 book of the same name, the film follows Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), an explorer who disappeared along with his son in 1925 while searching for a fabled civilisation.
We first meet Major Fawcett in 1906, working as a British officer in Cork. He’s a respected officer who has found his advancement through the ranks stunted by his modest upbringing. So when the National Geographical Society offers him an opportunity to prove himself by leading an exploration into the Amazon he jumps at the chance, leaving behind his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and their children. Once Fawcett enters the jungle, Gray switches gears, leaving the intimate interiors and comforts of Europe and venturing head-first into the wild, where danger is always close at hand, ready to erupt.
The tension builds gradually, with Gray playing with the audience’s expectations of the dangers the Amazon holds. However, it soon becomes clear the real danger is Fawcett’s maddening obsession. During this mapping expedition, Fawcett and his companion Henry Costin (an almost unrecognisable Robert Pattinson) stumble upon evidence of a lost civilisation, one that predates the western discovery of Machu Picchu. On their return to Britain they present their findings to their peers and, with the financial help of a delusional benefactor named James Murray, a second expedition to the rainforest is organised.
Gray adopts a methodical approach to chronicling Fawcett’s life, allowing it to unfurl chronologically over the years. Most directors would have approached The Lost City of Z by painting Fawcett as a flawed idealist who sacrificed his family for fame and fortune, or as a valiant explorer, undoing the wrongs of the white men who went before him. Gray gives Fawcett the space to navigate between both these personas, trading in the mythic register of similar biopics, and opting for more of a pragmatic approach, combining a spirit of adventure with a tight, almost mathematical style that forces the audience to explore the hidden pleasures outside the film’s familiar contours.
An ornately mounted story marked with tints of antiquarianism, The Lost City of Z is perhaps Gray’s most accomplished film to date. Despite working on a larger canvas he remains true to the themes of his previous work: primarily those of family and social class. Fawcett’s obsession with finding Z is anchored to his inability to transcend his humble origins and provide a more comfortable life for his family. It was an obsession that took his life yet Gray doesn’t see it as a tragedy, instead framing his disappearances as an act of spiritual transcendence. Comparisons with Fawcett’s quixotic quest and Gray’s struggles in Hollywood are unavoidable. With luck, The Lost City of Z is the film that prevents them from sharing the same fate.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble